Monday, June 11, 2007

The Aztec's National Revelation

Lately I've been doing some broad and more or less random research through the internet looking for all sorts of claims of great public miracles to see if any of them well compare to the claims made in the Torah, but the truth is that they are few in far between and few even approximate the kind of story found in the Book of Exodus. Not that this means that the story in the Book of Exodus is 100% accurate history, but it begs for an explanation for why the very claim is made so uniquely.

See, the fact is that it's difficult to get a sizeable and self-contained group of people in one place to observe a single event. Times where that even happens in normal life are few and far between. You can get a large number of people, but that's not self-contained, i.e. of a single ethnic or national group so the cultural memory of whatever kind of event is not lost through dispersal.

Additionally, not only need there be an event, but it has to be a claimed event of significant cultural magnitude so that the self-contained group of people will supposedly retain it and pass it on to their children.

Now, the second condition is generally a function of religion while the first is a function of ethnic history and rather infrequently are the two things combined in anything but the most ancient-type peoples, of which the Hebrews count.

So the key is not to search for the origins of religions, especially the popular ones, which tend to be universalistic or otherwise widespread. You need to search for significant events that happen to a whole tribe and of which's stories were passed down within the tribe. There were likely many such stories in the past back when there were many more independent ancient tribes and few popular religions, but no doubt most of those are lost to us today.

The Jews have the unique benefit, in a sense, of retaining that original tribal/cultural memory while surviving into the modern world. Most tribes did not. And it is for that reason that such like-claims are so rare to see today.

So anyway, the key types of myths that I then went searching for from that point were tribal origins myths and migration myths where the whole tribe is ostensibly in the same place at the same time and experiencing the same things. One can easily see how the Exodus story fits into the category of a migration myth. And so I came across story of the Aztec migration.

The story is rather long and involved and so I recommend that anyone who's interested should do a google search and read up on your own, but the basic story is found here.

"One day, the legends say, a strange bird told the Aztecs to leave their country. It flew over the White Land crying 'ti-hui, t-hui,' which are the Aztec words for 'we must go'.

What can this mean? cried the puzzled people. They quickly gathered together. "The bird is calling us, said the priests. "He wants us to follow him."

The bird flew off towards the south. The tribes chose one of their number, Tecpaltzin, to lead them. "We shall go," declared Tecpaltzin. "A new homeland awaits us."

And so it was decided. The men set to and built boats, and soon the Aztec people were able to cross the water.

The legend also tells us that eight tribes of the Nahuas Indians came from the Ancestral Cave. These tribes had settled on the southern bank of the river Colorado, and were amazed to see the Aztecs arriving in their boats.

"Where are you going?" the princes of the Nahuas asked them.

"To find a new homeland," replied Tecpaltzin. The Nahuas were very excited.

"May we come with you?" they asked eagerly. The Aztecs agreed, and so they set out together.

The Aztec tribes decided to make a statue of their sun and war god Huitzilopochtli. Then the war god spoke to them through the statue:

"I shall lead you. I shall fly with you in the shape of a white eagle, with a serpent in my beak. Follow me wherever I go. Where I settle, build a temple to me, with a bed for me to rest on. Build your houses round the temple, and destroy the villages you find there. Worship the eagle and the tiger, and be a brave and warlike people. That is my command."

So spoke the god Huitzilopochtli. He had given the Aztecs a great task: to be noble, fight for the truth, and keep order in the world. His words were symbolic. But the Aztecs misunderstood, and they thought they were to enslave other people, occupy their countries, destroy their homes and behave like tyrants. And that is what they did.

The Aztecs praised their god, and swore to obey him. They set off on the great journey with the Nahua tribes. Three priests and a priestess bore the god's statue on their shoulders on a bed of reeds. On they went until they reached a suitable place to set up camp.

It was getting on towards evening. The Aztecs built a mound of earth and set their god on it. But before they could eat they heard cries coming from the tree. Alarmed they look up at the top of the tree, and at that moment, it split in two. They were terrified, for they knew this must be a sign from their god. They fell to their knees, weeping. Suddenly the god began to speak: "Wait, my Aztecs. you must part from the Nahua tribes. Call them here and tell them they must make their way alone." Tecpaltzin summonded the Nahua chief. "Our god has spoken" he announced.

"We are listening," replied the chiefs.

"He has ordered us to wait. The time has come to say goodbye."

The Nahuas were very sad. "But what about us?" they asked.

"You must go on without us," Tecpaltzin told them.

"Can't we stay with you?" asked the Nahuas asked sadly.

But Huitzilopochtli had forbidden it, for he did not wish his people to share the promised land with the Nahuas. So the Nahuas parted from the Aztecs and went on their way alone.


Then, for some years, they lived at Tollan, which people now call Tula. Up and down over Mexico, hither and thither they wandered. Not until the year 1216, after a migration that had lasted for nearly 60 years, did they come upon Anåhuac, the high plateau valley.

They stopped dumbstruck. Far below stretched the high plateau, dotted with lakes and bordered by mountains. It was, the ancient legends tell, a "Field of Dazzling Whiteness". Everything seemed to be brilliant white: the trees, the reeds, the meadows, the water - even the fish and the frogs. Were they really all so white, or was it simply that the new Mexicans were blinded by the beauty unfolding before their eyes?

The people fell to their knees and prayed. The chiefs and the priests wept with joy.

"At last we have come to our sacred land," they told the Mexicans. "It is Anåhuac, the Land by the Water. Our wishes have been granted. Rejoice, everyone. Rejoice, for our god has led us to the promised land." But could their wanderings really be over? Anxiously they awaited a sign from their god.

And suddenly the voice of Huitzilopochtli thundered forth.

"Stay, Mexicans! With all your strength and all your wisdom, make this country your own. Though you sweat blood and tears, you shall win what you have been seeking. Gold and silver, precious stones and splendid finery shall be your reward. You shall harvest cocoa, and cotton, and many fruits. Beautiful gardens will delight your eyes. This is your country!"

Wow, now doesn't that sound awfully similar to another story we've heard? The Aztecs considered themselves the 'chosen people' of Huitzilopochtli who lead them on their journey to a promised land. And apparently, through that time was a period of wandering the wilderness where their god spoke to them a good number of times. Especially impressive is that last time where it makes it clear that Huitzilopochtli was heard by the whole people.

In the part that skipped, Huitzilopochtli tells them to not longer go by the name Aztec, but by Mexica - and this is the founding story of Tenochtitlan, which became the capitol city of the Aztec Empire and is today located under modern Mexico City.

*To note though, this is only a very recent field of study for me and I have not confirmed this story's accuracy. There is a real paucity of data on the internet about it. I guess there aren't enough Aztecs around. So I ordered a book that is supposed to have good data on this subject and then I'll be able to confirm, or qualify as needed.


Anonymous said...

What's the kashye? So this story must be true too!


resh lakish said...

Bear in mind, however: although the story may be ancient, when does this particular telling of it date from? It is a not uncommon scenario that ancient pre-Christian myths and beliefs, instead of being replaced entirely, are modified by Christological and biblical elements, in a syncretic fashion. This is particularly true in Latin America (have you seen South American "Catholic" churches?) It may have even been a subconscious influence.

Orthoprax said...


Indeed, yet how could you still convince a native population what their direct ancestors experienced without the tradition of same, ala Kuzari.

Are you implying that the Aztec mesorah is imperfect?

resh lakish said...

Are you implying that the Aztec mesorah is imperfect?

has ve'shalom; Quetzalcoatl would never lie.

Rabban Gamliel said...

Orthoprax you have times in Tanach where it says G-d spoke to Israel or a particular tribe and it only means at least those who would need to know. With Mount Sinai it is said that all Israel heard. Also this at least supposed Aztec legend isn't the same momentous event of everyone receiving Divine law. Also it is the fact that the message of Mount Sinai is out of time and place that makes it have mystery even more than explaining it's origin. By the way Ortho I have been banned by XGH so I will unless unbanned be posting my comments on my site and also emailing you them.

Orthoprax said...


The point is how well this revelation stands up with the Kuzari proof, not just random differences between the stories. I think it stands up rather well actually.

jewish philosopher said...

First of all, obviously this story about a god talking to the people is false.

The question is, does the Aztec belief in it violate the Anti-Conspiracy Principle which I have set forth in my blog. I wrote "Potential falsification: Present one example of a successful conspiracy of 10,000 people who knowingly all told the same lie, which was later somehow discovered to be a lie."

The fact is that the Aztec religion was destroyed by the Spanish. Anything that we know about their beliefs is probably very speculative. Perhaps one Aztec told this "bubba maaseh" to one Spanish priest 400 years ago. This would not invalidate my principle. Do you see the problem?

Orthoprax said...


Your principle is silly. The point is not that mass conspiracies are a good explanation, but that myths grow over time.

The Aztec story of the founding of their city was widely known and is today commemorated in Mexico. The story is inspiration for their chosen symbols on the modern Mexican flag.

Anonymous said...

"First of all, obviously this story about a god talking to the people is false."

Finally, JP-- you're talking sense!

jewish philosopher said...

Ortho, of course myths can grow over time. I am a genealogist, among other things, and I am well aware of how "old wives' tales" aka "bubba maases" are enhanced with each telling in a family's history.

But to actually fabricate universally accepted national history requires something more implausible - it requires a mass conspiracy. This is the type of thing Holocaust deniers believe in and most other people ridicule. And this is ultimately what a Torah denier must also believe in, as I have explained in detail.

It seems to be unclear what this original Aztec legend was. Here is a very different version, involving no mass revelation.

Anonymous said...

JP, there is no requirement for a mass "conspiracy." If a group of people are generally aware that they have origins elsewhere, the growth, memorialization and acceptance of legends about those origins could easily happen. Denying the Holocaust is not analogous to denying the Torah. Moreover, you know all this perfectly well, which is why you need to resort to insults when people don't buy your flimsy arguments.

jewish philosopher said...

"the growth, memorialization and acceptance of legends about those origins could easily happen."

Tell me about a few cases, where everyone agreed on a national tradition which they knew was false.

Orthoprax said...


It does not require a mass conspiracy because people don't en masse create tribal traditions that they know to be false.

Your whole argument is a strawman.

"It seems to be unclear what this original Aztec legend was."

I know, that's why I said I'd be confirming. Though any full version that you find has some miraculous thing happen to, or in front of, the whole nation.

jewish philosopher said...

"people don't en masse create tribal traditions that they know to be false" Precisely. That's why the Exodus tradition must be true.

To falsify my anti-conspiracy principle and make it comparable to the Exodus tradition, you would have to find a moment in Aztec history when everyone got together and agreed to tell the same lie about their past history.

Also, in the version I found, there doesn't seem to be any miracle, just an eagle landing on a cactus. That's what's on the Mexican flag today.

Anonymous said...

"Tell me about a few cases, where everyone agreed on a national tradition which they knew was false."

JP, I don't understand why you persist in arguing this irrelevant point. A legend can grow slowly over time and gain acceptance. It need not leap into being from nothing and be simultaneously thrust upon an entire people.

Orthoprax said...


The version you found was much abridged.

Orthoprax said...


"I don't understand why you persist in arguing this irrelevant point."

I think he enjoys it.

jewish philosopher said...

If you bother to check my blog, you may discover why other scenarios are not applicable to the Sinai tradition.

No matter how many times you chant "Yahweh is the same as Zeus" that doesn't make it true.

Orthoprax said...


You are a walking non sequitur.

jewish philosopher said...

It's better than being a blathering non-thinker.

Orthoprax said...

Actually it's practically identical.

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Anonymous said...

I doubt anyone is checking this old posts, but it seems the aztec legend is NOT that the god spoke to everyone in a national revelation, but rather that the war god communicated to the priests, who then relayed the message on. Not quite a national revelation. Here are 3 sources:


See pg. 31-32: "Huitzilopochtli, later identified as a god of war, communicated directly with his high priests via dreams and profound trances, bestowing on them omens, prophecies and navigational tools to arrive at their promised land."

2- "These priests voiced Huitzilopochtli’s oracular directions as to where the combined Mexica-Aztec tribe was next to travel."

3-" Huitziton, a person of great authority...heard in the branches of a tree the trilling of a small bird...struck at this, and communicating his impressions to another personage...they both induced the Aztecs to leave their country, interpreting the song as a mandate from divinity."

See pg. 140

So it looks that the aztec belief was that their war god did not communicate to the people, but rather to the high priests, who then relayed the claimed divine message on to the masses. But according to these sources, the Aztecs did not have a legend that it was the god Huitzilopochtli who spoke directly to everybody. So we can see this is definitely not a national revelation from god, but rather a relayed message from priests. This, unlike a national revelatory claim, is exactly what we’d expect to see in legends.

Orthoprax said...


Please see my comment to you in part II of this series of posts.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the update anon...i too would imagine there to be few - if any - cases where such a myth could grow into history... although highly unlikely given what archeology has unearthed of the level of education and widespread acceptance of religion even before the advent of judaism as well as a general understanding of history .... it remains possible

Anonymous said...

And where exactly in the Torah does it say that God spoke to a whole nation? The only thing you will find is that at best Aaron and Moses spoke to God and relayed the info to the masses.... No difference with the Aztec myth and I still wonder how people keep saying that the revelation was a national event. If it ever was (which there is literally 0 actual archeological or any type of evidence for), then it was between 2 guys horn blowing and the masses being fooled... Seriously give me the passage where it says it happened.

James Jordan said...

Since the Aztec story comes from an oral rather than written source, I'm inclined to say any similarity to Exodus is manufactured by the story teller molding the story consciously to follow Exodus. So its an epic fail.

Anonymous said...

>And where exactly in the Torah does it say that God spoke to a whole nation?

devarim/deuteronomy 4:10-13

the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, "Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.

And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness.

The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no image, just a voice.

And He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets.