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Bonfire of the Sanities: California's Deranged Revival of the Aztec Gods

Bonfire of the Sanities: California's Deranged Revival of the Aztec Gods
Skulls at an exhibition of artifacts at the Templo Mayor Aztec complex in Mexico City, Mexico, in 2017. (Henry Romero/Reuters) Apparently, for the sake of the state's schoolchildren, we need to set the record straight on the blood-soaked worship of ancient deities.

By Cameron Hilditch
March 28, 2021

The Board of Education in California recently voted unanimously to approve an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for use in all of the state's public schools. As our editorial pointed out on the day the vote was taken, this curriculum is "probably the most radical, polemical, and ideologically loaded educational document ever offered up for public consideration in the free world." It's a purpose-built program of indoctrination into the worst kind of tribal politics -- a project of social engineering designed to erase the unique personal distinctiveness of the human being and remake each of us into avatars of our immutable characteristics. The knowledge that entire generations of Californians will soon be catechized in the dogmas of such a bleak and thoroughly political gospel is almost too grievous to bear.

As I noted a few weeks ago, the most astonishing part of the curriculum is the section that deals with religion:

Students are to be taught that white Christian settlers committed "theocide" against indigenous tribes when they arrived in the New World by murdering Native American gods and replacing them with the Christian God. According to the curriculum, this replacement ushered in a regime defined by "coloniality, dehumanization, and genocide," and the "explicit erasure and replacement of holistic Indigeneity and humanity." But all is not lost, we are told. For students will learn that they have the power and the responsibility to build a social order defined by "countergenocide," which will eventually supplant the last vestiges of colonial Christianity and pave the way for the "regeneration of indigenous epistemic and cultural futurity."

The curriculum presents the pagan gods of the Aztec empire as worthier objects of study and veneration than Jesus of Nazareth. This presentation does not rest at the level of theory or academic inquiry. As Christopher F. Rufo has observed, teachers are encouraged by the authors of the curriculum to lead their students in an "ethnic studies community chant," which takes the form of worship offered up to these deities:

Students first clap and chant to the god Tezkatlipoka -- whom the Aztecs traditionally worshipped with human sacrifice and cannibalism -- asking him for the power to be "warriors" for "social justice." Next, the students chant to the gods Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Xipe Totek, seeking "healing epistemologies" and "a revolutionary spirit." Huitzilopochtli, in particular, is the Aztec deity of war and inspired hundreds of thousands of human sacrifices during Aztec rule. Finally, the chant comes to a climax with a request for "liberation, transformation, [and] decolonization," after which students shout "Panche beh! Panche beh!" in pursuit of ultimate "critical consciousness."

Even a passing knowledge of Aztec history raises serious questions about this ritual (a passing knowledge of the First Amendment raises even more, but that's a different matter). None, though, is more important than the question of what, precisely, has brought these deities back to life after so many centuries of slumber. Why do teachers and administrators in California want to revive these Aztec cults and set them favorably against Christianity?

We can't ask this question properly -- let alone answer it -- without taking at least a cursory look at Aztec history and searching for the virtues that California's Board of Education thinks it has found in the cults of these Mesoamerican deities.

The principal place of worship in the Aztec empire was the Templo Mayor in the city of Tenochtitlan, which was made up of twin pyramids, one dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun, and the other to Tlaloc, the god of rain. Like all the Aztec gods, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc had an insatiable appetite for human sacrifice. The priests of Huitzilopochtli would appease their patron deity by laying out a sacrificial victim on a stone at the apex of the god's pyramid, carving out said victim's heart (while he or she was still alive), and then rolling the body down the side of the pyramid, at the base of which it was then dismembered and either disposed of or eaten. Post-conquest sources report that at the reconsecration of this pyramid in 1487, about 80,400 people were sacrificed in this way over the course of just four days. Even historians who regard this number as an exaggeration concede that the victim tally was probably still in the tens of thousands.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

Tlaloc was an even less attractive figure. He had a particular predilection for the sacrifice of children. The remains of more than 40 boys and girls were discovered at the excavation site of the great pyramid, most bearing the marks of severe and prolonged torture. This was to be expected given that the Aztec pictorial codices that have come down to us invariably show the children crying before being sacrificed. The priests of Tlaloc believed the tears of innocent children to be particularly pleasing to the god, and they took great care to ensure that their little victims were crying before and throughout the ceremony so that the smoke of the sacrificial fire would carry their tears up to the god above at the moment of death. The ritual began with the bones of the children being broken, their hands or their feet burned, and carvings etched into their flesh. They were then paraded before the celebrants of the ritual while crying. Insufficient tears from the children were believed to result in insufficient rains for the crops that year, so no brutality was spared. At the end of it all, the mutilated victims were burned alive.

But Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."

Tezcatlipoca, who also makes an appearance in the new Californian catalogue of venerable deities, was thought to be the most powerful of the Aztec gods. He held sway over darkness, night, sorcery, and witchcraft. He also had it within his power to disrupt the social comity and felicity of the gods themselves and was, for that reason, particularly to be feared. He was worshipped with many different forms of sacrifice. One of these involved dressing the victim in splendid warrior regalia and then tying him to a stake or a wall. Aztec warriors would then "battle" with him in a mocking and derisory manner, drawing this ritual of humiliation and torture out so as to entertain the god and themselves for as long as possible.

And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head. And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.

These are the deities to whom the Christian god owes theological reparations in the eyes of California's education establishment. Italicized passages from the Christian scriptures have been interspersed above so that readers can judge for themselves which of the two religions is better characterized by "coloniality, dehumanization, and genocide." I have discussed just the three most prominent Aztec gods, but the reader inclined to follow up with his or her own research will find in the entire pantheon of Mesoamerican deities not a single redeemable characteristic.

It was long thought by historians of an anticolonial bent that the conquistadors greatly exaggerated their accounts of Aztec cruelty for polemical purposes. This is no longer the case. Ample documentary and archaeological evidence now exists showing that the Aztecs were as gratuitously cruel as the Spanish colonists originally reported them to be.

The question remains, then, as to why a cabal of social engineers in California want to present these religious beliefs in a positive light to American children. It's certainly not because they think these gods and their human servants were morally impressive or humane in and of themselves. A few loons in the QAnon crowd might think so, but those in possession of their higher critical faculties would never even entertain the notion.

No, the real reason that the authors of California's Ethnic Studies Curriculum take a positive view of Aztec religion and a negative view of Christianity is because the Aztec gods lost the battle of religious orthodoxies and the New World and the Christian God won. It really is as simple as that.

In its most radical form, left-leaning social and historical analysis begins with the axiom that coercive and violent power is the only variable in human social arrangements. Life is conceived as a zero-sum competition between groups. All other factors that might be said to account for the disparities in success between these groups -- in terms of human capital, material conditions, or governing ideas -- are seen as elaborate veneers disguising the raw power-struggle of group conflict. This axiomatic starting point leads inevitably to the conclusion that the reigning social order achieved its dominance by oppressing the groups it is thought to have marginalized. This is why words like "dominance," "oppression," and "marginalization" have become commonplaces of our political lexicon.

The classical Marxist variation on this theme is, of course, an economic one: The story goes that the capitalists and the bourgeoisie have established and cemented the current global economic system by oppressing the proletariat. But a great deal of the post-1960s Left has supplemented Marx's economic categories with a whole host of others: race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, nationality, and so on. The great oppressor is no longer just the capitalist but the straight, white, imperialist, European, cisgender, Christian male capitalist. This is the innovation of intersectionality. Any advantage that people belonging to the dominant groups have gained over marginalized groups across the centuries is thought to be the result of a rigged social order. The advantages -- or "privilege" -- that the descendants of the historic oppressors enjoy are presented as ill-gotten gains.

Understood within this framework, the story of the Aztecs is a simple one. They were a Native American, non-Christian people who were conquered by European Christian imperialists. Their defeat at the hands of Western civilization, which has had the temerity and the wickedness to last as long as it has by oppressing the downtrodden of the Earth, is enough to endow their religious practices with a nobility and a virtue that is entirely separate from its content.

For the most extreme elements of the Left, the mere fact of being powerful or successful is incriminating. The mere fact of being the insurgent underdog is exonerating. Noam Chomsky's long and ignominious tenure as useful idiot in chief to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and his concomitant downplaying of the killing fields is only one example of this. Another is the common idea that white people cannot be the victims of racism. Because white people have, according to many on the intersectional left, achieved hegemonic power in society through the use of violence, they cannot be deemed victims of racism in any sense unless and until people of color have exercised enough violence themselves to overturn the oppressive existing social order. Until that point, which is never concretely defined, a white person can have no legitimate complaint against a person of color. No room for historical complexity or attention to detail is allowed.

When John Locke pulled the disparate elements of classical liberalism together into a coherent philosophy, he did so not for the purpose of framing a government but for justifying revolution. Overthrow, rather than order, is the basic political instinct of liberalism, which is why, once the War of Independence was won, the Founding Fathers had to turn to classical republicanism for language suitable to framing a constitution. The zanier offshoots of liberalism's wild-eyed cousin progressivism merely take this spirit of revolution to the nth degree. Gods of child sacrifice can be championed within this framework so long as they are insurgent gods; so long as they are underdogs sticking it to "the Man" -- even when the Man is Jesus Christ himself.

The early Christians were of the view that the pagan gods were not necessarily unreal; rather, they were simply demons that human beings had been duped into worshipping as deities. This seems strange to us moderns, who are so reflexively suspicious of the supernatural. But the particular demands of the Aztec gods are, I think, depraved enough to cause even the most skeptical among us to consider for a moment that there might be more than material evils at work among us. Whether or not one takes a metaphysical or a metaphorical view of the matter, it cannot be denied that our social tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to defeated parties, to failed insurgents, has unleashed demonic forces into the world. Playing on that American tendency, Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA, and other terrorist groups have drawn ill-informed support for their violent ends over the years. The authors of the new California curriculum are now exploiting precisely the same sympathy in the arena of education.

In many ways their curriculum is a lot like the stone altar that once stood at the top of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. It's at the apex of an ideological edifice that has taken decades, if not centuries, to construct. The values that it consecrates wouldn't be tolerated without this edifice, which lends it legitimacy, authority, and respectability. And, most importantly and terribly of all, many of our children will be sacrificed on it if we accord the cult it serves more respect and more tolerance than it rightly deserves.


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