CHRISTIANS IN AMERICA BEFORE COLUMBUS
by Richard Graeber
When Spanish Friars first set foot on American soil, they observed
and recorded Native religious ceremony and ritual. They were puzzled when they found that
indigenous concepts and practices were, in many ways, quite similar to Roman Catholic
practices. The natives not only practiced confession and Penance, Lent, Last Rites and
Holy Communion, they had their own version of the Ten Commandments, except theirs were
eight. The native moral code that was delivered to the citizens at religious ceremonies
consisted of eight steadfast rules.
At one particular ceremony, Father Diego Duran recorded an oration regarding the Eight
Indian Commandments from an Aztec priest in the mid-1500's.
"Once the solemn rites had terminated, an elder with high authority, one of the
dignitaries of the temple, arose. In a resonant voice he then preached words regarding the
law and ritual, similar to the Ten Commandments, which we are obliged to keep:
1. Thou shalt fear, honor and love the gods.
The gods were so honored and revered by the natives that any offense against them was paid
for with one's life. They held the gods in more fear and reverence than we show to our own
2. Thou shalt not use the names of the gods on thy tongue or in thy talk at any time.
3. Thou shalt honor the feast days.
The natives, with a terrible rigor, fulfilled all these ceremonies and rites with fasts
and vigils, without exception.
4. Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother, thy kinsmen, priests and elders.
No nation on earth has held its elders in such fear and reverence as these people. The old
father or mother was held in reverence under the pain of death. Above all else these
people charged their children to revere elders of any rank or social position. So it was
that the priests of the law were esteemed, respected, by old and young, lord and peasant,
rich and poor. Old people, in our own wretched times, are no longer honored; they are held
in contempt and scorned.
5. Thou shalt not kill.
Homicide was strictly prohibited, but it was not punished by physical death. It was paid
with civil death. The murderer was turned over to the widow or to the relatives of the
deceased, [to be] forever a slave. He was to serve them and earn a living for the children
of the deceased.
6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Adultery and fornication were also condemned, to the point that if a man was caught in
adultery a rope was thrown about his neck, he was stoned, and [he was] then dragged
throughout the entire city. After this the body was cast out of the city to be eaten by
7. Thou shalt not steal.
This commandment was kept in a more rigorous way than it is today, since the thief was
either slain or sold for the price of the theft.
8. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Those people condemned false witness. They punished those caught lying.
Those who had committed these sins and broken the law went about constantly filled with
fear, imploring mercy of the gods, asking not to be discovered. Pardon for these sins was
granted every four years on the jubilee; their remission took place on the Feast of
Could the similarities be coincidental? In the absence of conclusive evidence, let's take
a look at other similarities in order to help resolve the uncertainties, such as the act
of Confession and Cleansing, which were deeply ingrained in Aztec religious practices. Is
it a coincidence that Mayans murals show their kings practicing penance centuries before
Columbus reached America?
Friar Duran explains the process below.
"When I order a penitent to scourge himself, to fast on bread and water, [all the
people see the penance], but no one knows the nature of the sin or even suspects it. The
same occurred among these people: he who had stolen, fornicated, or killed another or had
broken any one of the commandments of laws, the law ordained that he examine his
conscience on that day. And in accordance with the number of grave sins he had committed,
he gathered the same number of straws the length of the palm of a hand, such as those used
for brooms. After having counted his sins with those straws, he went to the temple at the
hour when the others had gone to bathe. He squatted before the goddess; he took a pointed
instrument and passed it through his tongue. When the piercing of the tongue had been
accomplished, he picked up the straws and one by one passed them through the hole: and as
he pulled each through, he cast it, full of blood, before the idol. All those present knew
that if he cast down ten straws he had committed ten sins, and if twenty, twenty; but they
did not know the nature of these sins. In this way they confessed their sins before the
gods and the priests and then went to bathe like the rest and eat food we have described.
These penitents who confessed were numerous, both men and women.'
"When the sinners had finished their penance and confession, the priests gathered the
bloody straws, went to the Divine Hearth, and burned them there. With this, everyone felt
cleansed and pardoned for his transgressions and sins, having the same faith that we hold
for the Divine Sacrament of Penance."
Father Duran further explains the indigenous ritual methods of the practice of Aztec
"I do not wish to be repetitious, but, since our subject requires it, I must explain
this term in case someone has forgotten what tzoalli is. It is bread made by the natives
from amaranth seed and corn grains, kneaded with dark honey, a thing highly esteemed by
them. Today it is eaten as candy. In olden times [tzoalli] was held in great reverence and
was the material with which the [images of the] gods were made. After these had been
worshipped and sacrifices and ceremonies had been performed before them, [the bread]. In
pieces, was distributed and was partaken of as the flesh of God, and all received
communion with it, having first washed by order of the priest.'
"Purification by washing was a most common thing when ordered by the priests. If a
person went to tell the priests about his own illness or that of his child or spouse, the
following prescription was given to him: he was to grind that seed, knead it with corn,
and mix it with honey; but first he must wash, purify himself of his sins, and then go eat
[tzoalli]. This sounds somewhat like advise from Christian physicians on the first day
they see their patient. Before beginning the treatment, they ask that he confess and
receive communion. So it was that this day [the natives] confessed and received communion,
as I have said."
To some of the Christian Friars the similarities they found were unsettling. The Aztecs
were found to be very chaste people. Were the religious practices of the Aztecs influenced
by exposure to the Spanish invaders?
According to a former priestess in the native hierarchy, the Christians didn't bring
anything new. The Aztecs practiced Lent and fasting before exposure to Spanish
Christianity. Their dead were laid to rest after preparing the soul to reach the place of
eternal peace. There was also a hell. Father Duran recorded the exchange.
" Once an old Indian woman, wise in the ancient ways, perhaps a former priestess, was
brought to me. She told me that in ancient times the natives had Easter, Christmas and
Corpus Christi, just as we do, and on the same dates, and she pointed out other very
important native feasts, which coincide with our celebrations. 'Evil old woman,' I said,
'the devil has plotted and has sown tares with the wheat so that you will never learn the
In retrospect, it could be interpreted that the good friar was guilty of his own
Within the same time frame, Cabeza de Vaca, a soldier and explorer, was stranded amongst
the natives of the Gulf Coast, Florida, Texas and Arizona, for eight years. During his quest to convert the
Indians to Christianity, he was surprised by the Indians' answers to his questions
regarding their own religious beliefs. When asked to repeat the teachings of Christian
ideology, as they understood them, the Indians gave their response.
"To this they replied through the interpreter that they would be very good Christians
and serve God. Upon being asked whom they worshipped and to whom they offered sacrifices,
to whom they prayed for health and water for the fields, they said, to a man in Heaven. We
asked what was his name, and they said Aguar, and that they believed he had created the
world and everything in it.'
"We again asked how they came to know this, and they said their fathers and
grandfathers had told them, and they had known it for a very long time; that water and all
good things came from him. We explained that this being of whom they spoke was the same we
called God, and that thereafter they should give Him that name and worship and serve Him
as we commanded, when they would fare very well."
De Vaca traveled through many towns in an area currently known as Texas and Arizona. Even
though each Indian clan hailed by different names, their bonds extended thousands of
miles; they all spoke the language of the Aztecs. The explorer mentioned in his chronicle
receiving a curious rattle from the natives.
"There, among other things which they gave us, Andres Dorantes got a big rattle of
copper, large, on which was represented a face, and which they held in great esteem. They
said it had been obtained from some of their neighbors. Upon asking these whence it had
come, they claimed to have brought it from the north, where there was much of it and
highly prized. We understood that, wherever it might have come from, there must be
foundries, and that metal was cast in molds."
The people that became known as the Aztecs originally resided in the "Four
Corners" area of New Mexico. This is where the Chaco Canyon became a major
metropolitan center for western North America in the first millennium AD. A fifty-year
drought devastated the area in the middle of the eleventh century. The Mexica (aka:
Aztecs), one of a group of seven tribes, left behind the Hopi (peaceful ones) for a better
life further south.
Chaco Canyon was connected to the Great Lakes region via the Hopewell Highway. The native
people would travel thousands of miles for trade or on pilgrimage. To the southwest of
Teotihuacan in central Mexico, where the Pyramid of the Sun exists today, are the ancient
remains of Tula, the Toltec capital. Found there are native paintings of a Toltec priest
depicted with red hair and very pale skin that sunburned. Maybe his physical
characteristics are just a fluke of nature, since he was purported to have native parents.
It was this Toltec holy man and his followers, after leaving the Mexico basin around
1100AD, that built Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula.
The Toltec holy man, Ce Atl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl*, was persecuted and banished from his
homelands by a competing religious sect. He was said to have walked to the eastern coast
marking his path with miracles and the sign-of-the-cross to denote his route. As a matter
of fact, the Spanish padres found the indigenous crucifix symbol all over "New
If the Spanish friars were totally biased and unreliable in the accounts laid down in
their chronicles, any similarities chronicled between the Native and European cultures
would be merely a matter of interpretation. It has been argued that the figure of crossed
lines that make up a crucifix is easy for anybody to invent and that it has been used by
various cultures for various purposes throughout time. And, the fact that a fair-skinned,
red-haired Toltec priest marked his way to the sea with that symbol means nothing.
The consuming question of the hour is; how did the Aztecs develop a set of religious
practices nearly identical to the methods and teachings of the Catholic Church?
Coincidence could explain maybe one or two similarities. In light of the recent discovery
of the Mauritanian treasure trove (see Issue #30) found in Illinois,
there are strong indications of Mediterranean cultural influence in ancient America. So
the question becomes: Did the Mauritanians bring Christianity to the Americas fourteen and
a half centuries before Columbus and were the Aztec religious customs influenced by their
ancestors' exposure to that?
Were the Spanish friars totally biased and unreliable in the accounts laid down in their
chronicles? Are any similarities between the Native and European cultures merely a matter
of interpretation? The latest evidence doesn't actually clarify the picture, but adds
another scenario to a list of inconclusive possibilities.
The Hebrew Genesis describes a great flood that destroyed the world. The Aztec
Calendar contains a similar account. According to the native legend, we are living in the
age of the Fifth Sun. It is told that this age will end when "earthquakes destroy the
world." Four past ages that ended violently with the destruction of mankind have
preceded this current age. The epoch known as the Fourth Sun was called "The Age of
Navigation", implying a maritime emphasis. It is said to have ended when the formerly
mentioned flooding waters engulfed the world.
According to Mayas, who preceeded the Aztecs, the "Beginning of Time" started in
3113BC. This was the beginning of a 5125-year cycle that will end in the year 2012AD. Is
this connected to the "End of Days" as mentioned in the Old Testament? Or, does
it relate to the Hopi legend that describes the return of a portentous "blue
star?" Since the bulk of Native American libraries and corresponding knowledge have
been obliterated by Christian zealots, we can only wait and see.
*Ce Atl is an Aztec word that means "One Water." There is a town is
Washington state by the same name, i.e.: Seattle.
The Aztecs, People of the Sun.
Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.
Cabeza De Vaca, Alvar Nuñez
The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca, 1542.
Translated by Fanny Bandelier (1905)
PBS, Archives of the West
Duran, Friar Diego.
Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, 1581.
translated from Spanish.
Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
The King Danced in the Market Place
Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1964
Sahagun, Friar Bernardino de
Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana. 1545. Vol. 4, 2nd ed.
(edited by Garibay Kintana)
Mexico: Editorial Porra, S. A., 1969.
copyright © 2001, Historical Science Publishing