The Franciscan Invention of Mexican Polytheism: the Case of the Water Gods, in Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 76/2 (2010): 411-432.

The Franciscan Invention of Mexican Polytheism: the Case of the Water Gods, in Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 76/2 (2010): 411-432.
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  SMSR  76(2/2010) 411-432    S ERGIO B OTTA The Franciscan Invention of MexicanPolytheism: The Case of the Water Gods    Introduction  The application of the polytheistic notion of deity to the Meso-american context, and to the different religious systems of Native Amer-ica in general, requires a choice that is both theoretical and methodo-logical 1 . Firstly, there is a need for comparability, at least when the con-cept is considered from a conventional point of view. It is essential tocompare key polytheistic features (a multiplicity of gods), the pluralityof meaningful structures (e.g. cults, temples, images and genealogies)and their distinctive social nature (relationship between humans andgods) 2 . Secondly, when considering the evolution of the history of relig-ions as a discipline, we not infrequently find the notion of polytheism –applied in a conventional sense – occurring with an interpretation thatwants polytheism to be a global stage of religious development. Today itis generally believed that polytheism may represent the proper religioussystem of advanced civilizations, all of which arose in diverse historicalconditions and in different areas of the planet. In other words, the sameconditions, both social and cultural and connected to the improvementof cerealiculture, may independently have given birth to advanced civi-lizations that, because of their structural similarities, produced seem-ingly comparable religious systems 3 . One of the limits of this interpreta- __________ 1 For an updated theory of polytheism, see B. Gladigow, Polytheismus und  Monotheismus .  Zur historischen Dynamik einer europäischen Alternative , in M. Krebernik-J.von Oorschot (eds.), Polytheismus und Monotheismus in den Religionen des VorderenOrients , Ugarit-Verlag, Münster 2002, pp. 3-20. 2 On the perception of deities as “powers”, see J.-P. Vernant,  Mythe et pensée chez lesGrecs. Études de psychologie historique , Maspero, Paris 1965. 3 From the perspective of the Italian history of religions, whose methodologicalreflections have been developed in this journal, Raffaele Pettazzoni initiated the debate thatinvestigates the mutual dependance of monotheism and polytheism as well as revealing theprocess that generates the latter “by means of revolution”; see, R. Pettazzoni,  Monotheismusund Polytheismus , in H. Gunkel-L. Zscharnack (eds.),  Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart  2 , IV , Tübingen 1930, pp. 185-191. The investigation of polytheism becamesystematic during Angelo Brelich’s degree classes in 1957-58 (now republished in A. Brelich,  Il politeismo , M. Massenzio-A. Alessandri (eds.), forwarded by M. Augé, Editori Riuniti,Roma 2007), found its synthesis in his  Der Polytheismus , in «Numen» 7(1960), pp. 123-136,  S ERGIO B OTTA 412 tive model is to be found in its autonomy from the historical progressionof single polytheistic formations. They arose whenever the social andeconomic 4 conditions required to produce a transformation of the culturalcontext took place. The social stratification caused by the introduction of agriculture generated a typical model for the religious system capable of responding to the new requirements of communal life. On the other hand,scholars in the history of religions have also pursued another course, writ-ing the history of the categories of the discipline 5 . Consequently, it is pos-sible to investigate polytheism as a specific formation of a certain area of the Old World that spread by means of contact with other cultures, defin-ing itself through different processes of acceptance, adaptation, rejection,and so on 6 .If we look for the comparison with Mesoamerica, it seems useful toreflect on the possibility of considering the religious structures existingin the Americas prior to the Europeans’ arrival as an opportunity to in-vestigate the alternative between monogenesis and polygenesis. As amatter of fact, the Amerindian context seems extremely promising sincethe conditions permitting both interpretative perspectives arose at thesame time in the continent. On the one hand, there existed in Americavarious areas where it is easy to identify the historical representation of the “requirements” considered essential to the development of polythe-ism stricto sensu (invention of agriculture, birth of advanced civiliza-tions, and so on); on the other hand, the monogenetic thesis would re-quire that we show the existence of some contacts between this area andthe Old World, something that can hardly be demonstrated. Still, withinAmerican polytheisms and especially in the area of Mesoamerica underexamination, it is possible to discern a distance from the elementarygrammar that gives shape to the Old World’s polytheisms 7 . __________ and was finally consolidated within the methodological fresco of   Introduzione alla storiadelle religioni , Edizioni dell’Ateneo, Roma 1966. 4 See M. Massenzio,  Il rapporto economia-religione nel pensiero di A. Brelich , in «Studie Materiali di Storia delle Religioni» 54/2(1988), pp. 277-288. 5 Within the Italian debate, is followed the road of “monogenesis” in the work of DarioSabbatucci, Politeismo , 2 voll., Bulzoni, Roma 1998. 6 Angelo Brelich initially identified in Mesopotamia the area of a possible monogenesisof polytheism (A. Brelich,  Der Polytheismus , cit., pp. 123-136), but then supported apolygenetic thesis. Dario Sabbatucci openly claimed a Mesopotamian srcin in Politeismo ,cit., vol. I , pp. 9-19. 7 In Mesoamerican studies there survives a “critical” or “skeptical” position concerningthe possibility of using the polytheistic notion of deity. For a synthesis of this debate, see E.Florescano, Sobre la naturaleza de los dioses de Mesoamérica , in «Estudios de culturanáhuatl» 27(1997), pp. 41-67. Among the most stimulating works there figures the analysis of A. López Austin,  Nota sobre la fusión y la fisión de los dioses en el panteón mexica , in«Anales de Antropología» XX , 2(1983), pp. 75-87, and, in Mayan studies, the reflections of K.A. Taube, The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C. 1992.  T HE F RANCISCAN I NVENTION OF M EXICAN P OLYTHEISM 413 As a result, the “scandalous” condition of “Amerindian polytheism”imposes itself as an appropriate occasion for assessment of the heuristicvalue of the categories proper to the history of religions. The investiga-tion of Mesoamerican religious phenomena can in fact be easily re-thought so as to satisfy the perspective highlighted in the work thatCarmen Bernand and Serge Gruzinski have dedicated to idolatry, whichresearch properly foreshadows an archéologie des sciences religieuses 8 .  What Bernand and Gruzinski suggest enables us to avoid the methodo-logical impasse that arises from the stark alternative of monogenesis orpolygenesis and offers a promising investigative perspective. In otherwords, we may observe polytheism, not only by considering it as anautonomous category but also by seeking its discursive feature 9 . Itemerges as an object of negotiation generated by the encounter of dif-ferent religious systems. Consequently, the notion of polytheism canalso be studied as a product of the way Western culture looked at relig-ions of others for centuries 10 .The reflection on the plural dimension of gods, whereby the Jewish-Christian world gave meaning to ancient cultures’ religious systems,played an important role in the Americas in the construction of a cate-gory of a denotative type 11 . Consequently, investigation of the Amerin-dian context is doubly important. First, its “exceptions” to the polytheis-tic model allow us to critically observe the universalistic ambitions of religious studies, and thus to reflect upon their methods and objectives. __________ Also seeking to set forth a new interpretative hypothesis are: E.H. Boone,  Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe , Transactions of theAmerican Philosophical Society, Philadelphia 1989, D. Heyden,  Las diosa del agua y lavegetación , in «Anales de Antropología» XX  /2(1983), pp. 129-145, and L. Reyes García,  Dioses y escritura pictográfica , in «Arqueología mexicana» IV , 23(1997), pp. 24-33. 8 C. Bernand-S. Gruzinski,  De l’idolâtrie. Une archéologie des sciences religieuses ,Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1988. 9 Following this perspective, Stephen Greenblatt’s methodological reflection on theusage of Western rhetorics as instruments essential to New World’s “possession” isinteresting: S. Greenblatt,  Marvelous Possession. The Wonder of the New World  , ClarendonPress, Oxford 1991. 10 For a perspective that wants to remove “paganism” from the Western overview, seethe important works of Marc Augé, Génie du paganisme ,   Éditions Gallimard, Paris 1982,and  Le dieu objet  ,   Flammarion, Paris 1988. See also the Italian translation of the latter andNicola Gasbarro’s foreword to M. Augé,  Il dio oggetto ,   Meltemi, Roma 2002. For a criticalexamination of Augé from the perspective of the history of religions, see M. Massenzio,  Religion et religions. En marge du Génie du paganisme, in «L’Homme» 185-186(2008),pp. 313-332. 11 See F. Schmidt (ed.), The Inconceivable Polytheism: Studies in Religious Historiography (History & Anthropology, v. 3), Harwood Academic Publishers, LondonParis New York 1987. In any case, the relationship with polytheism is capital since the earlyappearance of monotheism’s exclusive perspective: see J. Assmann, Of God and Gods. Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism , University of Wisconsin Press , Madison 2008.  S ERGIO B OTTA 414 Secondly, the historical processes of the discovery and conquest of theAmerican continent look more interesting since they show a renewal of the controversy about a plurality of the gods. In fact, they arose as a par-ticular sphere in which there are to be found the analogical processes thatWestern culture utilized to build an image of religious otherness and togive sense to the anthropological difference during the Modern Era 12 .The colonial discourse 13 about Amerindian gods is interesting be-cause it illustrates how its modalities of enunciation combined to bringabout – from Bodin to Hume – the modern and scientific definition of the concept of polytheism. The discovery of Amerindian religious sys-tems is in fact a laboratory where the discourse was essentially domi-nated by missionary orders 14 and the debate on “idolatry” is based uponthe age-old controversy conducted by Jewish-Christian monotheismagainst the various religious forms of “others”.The missionary discourse regarding Mesoamerican religions isbased on the recovery and rethinking of a literary tradition that was aneffective interpretative model and «stockpile of representations» 15 be-cause of its authority. When describing Mesoamerican idolatry, the mis-sionaries involved in the  Indios ’ conversion throw light on the anti-pagan tradition that occurs in the Old Testament literature (starting withthe  Book of Wisdom ), the New Testament tradition (traces of which areto be found in the Pauline epistles), and the apologetic tradition (as rep-resented by the Fathers of the Church) 16 . There were two essential epi-sodes regarding the struggle between Jewish-Christian monotheism andpaganism: the struggle of Israel against the idolatry of Egypt and that of the early Christian community against Roman paganism 17 . The renewalof this tradition in New Spain resulted in the transferral of literary topoi to a new context and the imposition of a grille conceptuelle 18 on the proc- __________ 12 See, among other works, F. Affergan, Exotisme et alterité. Essai sur les fondementsd’une critique de l’anthropologie , Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1987, and M.Kilani,  L’invention de l’autre. Essais sur le discours anthropologique , Éditions Payot,Lausanne 1994. 13 The notion of “colonial discourse” was introduced by Peter Hulme in his ColonialEncounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797  , Methuen, London 1986.Concerning the Novohispanic context, see B. Pastor,  Discurso narrativo de la Conquista de América: Mitificación y Emergencia , Ediciones Casa de las Américas, Habana 1983. 14 See N. Gasbarro,  Il linguaggio dell’idolatria. Per una storia delle religioniculturalmente soggettiva , in «Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni» 62(1996), pp. 189-221, and Id.,  La cultura dei missionari , Bulzoni, Roma 2009. 15 S. Greenblatt,  Marvelous Possesions , cit., p. 6. 16 See G. Gliozzi, The Apostles in the New World: Monotheism and Idolatry between Revelation and Fetishism , in F. Schmidt (ed.), The Inconceivable Polytheism , cit., pp. 123-148. 17 F. Schmidt, Polytheisms: Degeneration or progress? , in F. Schmidt (ed.), The Inconceivable Polytheism , cit., pp. 9-60. 18  C. Bernand-S. Gruzinski,  De l’idolâtrie , cit., pp. 41-74.  T HE F RANCISCAN I NVENTION OF M EXICAN P OLYTHEISM 415 ess of understanding the “other”. The controversy about Mesoamericanreligion is in fact an example of what Walter Mignolo defined «TheDarker Side of the Renaissance» 19 : the discussion about gods produces a«colonial semiosis» 20 that promotes the inclusion of Amerindian culturesin some forms of Western organization of knowledge. On this view,«Mesoamerican polytheism» has to be considered a negotiation productand the result of a «vocabulary of the encounter»: a comparative languageessential to the transferral – sub specie religionis – of any other value sys-tem, contributing to the creation of a global image of difference.In order to trace this semiotic process, I shall limit this investigationto only one extra-human being of the religious system of Náhuatl-speaking people of Central Mexico: Tláloc, a water and earth god 21 . Myaim is to show the strategies and practices resulting in Tláloc’s inclusionin a polytheistic system: the process of the Franciscan order’s evangeli-zation of the  Indios during the first decades of Novohispanic history. Inorder to illustrate this historical development, I shall further simplify thematter, limiting myself to an analysis of the work of three historical fig-ures who represent the different phases of missionary strategies in NewSpain:  fray Toribio de Benavente Motolinía,  fray Bernardino de Sa-hagún and  fray Juan de Torquemada 22 .1. Water gods in Motolinía’s work  Franciscan Toribio de Benavente’s work (also known as Motolinía,which is a Náhuatl name) provides an opportune starting-point for ob-serving the interpretative process of defining Mesoamerican gods’ na- __________ 19 W. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance. Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization , University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1995. 20 «And the better our understanding of the spread of literacy in colonial situations, thebetter our ability to understand the complexity of what I have called elsewhere “colonialsemiosis”: a network of semiotic practices characterized by the encounter of writing systemsfrom different cultural traditions through the spread of Western literacy. And, finally, it wasin the New World where that colonial semiosis manifests itself in the face-to-face encounterbetween the brighter and the darker side of the European Renaissance»: W. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Colonization and the Discontinuity of the ClassicalTradition , in «Renaissance Quarterly» 45/4(1992), p. 813. 21 Concerning Tláloc, see S. Botta,  Le acque preziose , Bulzoni, Roma 2004, and J.Contel, Tlálloc: l’Incarnation de la Terre. Naissance et métamorphoses , Thèse de Doctorat,Toulouse 1999. 22 Concerning Franciscan activity in New Spain, see G. Baudot, Utopie et Histoire au Mexique. Les premiers chroniqueurs de la civilisation mexicaine   (1520-1569) , Editions E.Privat, Toulouse 1976, J.M. Kobayashi,  La educación como conquista (empresa franciscanaen México) , El Colegio de México, México 1974, and R. Ricard,  La conquê te spirituelle du Mexique. Essai sur l’apostolat et les mé thodes missionaires des ordres mendiants en Nouvelle-Espagne de 1523-24 à 1572 , Institut d’Ethnologie, Paris 1933.
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