Idolatry is an accusation. Derived from ancient Greek terms for the veneration (latreia) of images (eidola), idolatry provides a framework for exploring the connections and confusions of the early modern Mediterratlantic world, where false images seemed to be everywhere. This essay surveys the social lives of idols in sixteenth-century New Spain, focusing on their destruction, creation, excavation, and commodification. Significantly, all four actions were performed by Europeans and Native Americans alike: the treatment of idols in New Spain cannot be neatly divided into Mesoamerican versus Mediterranean strategies. Understanding these shared practices requires contextualizing them in pre-Hispanic and medieval histories, as well as in Europe’s Renaissance present. But of course shared actions may conceal radically different meanings, and the essay’s final section considers how the Castilian term ídolo was translated into different Mesoamerican languages. The ancient category of the idol, imported to the Americas, was remade into something new. Connecting dictionary entries to military and missionary reports to the archives of the Inquisition, the production of idols in early modern New Spain provides an unexpected context for revisiting the classic concerns—and still generative possibilities—of James Lockhart’s concept of Double Mistaken Identity.
RESUMEN La idolatría es una acusación. Derivada de los términos del griego antiguo utilizados para la veneración (latreia) de las imágenes (eidola), la idolatría brinda un marco para explorar las conexiones y confusiones del mundo Mediterratlántico de la temprana modernidad, donde las falsas imágenes parecían estar en todas partes. Este ensayo analiza la vida social de los ídolos en la Nueva España del siglo XVI, centrándose en su destrucción, creación, excavación y mercantilización. Es importante señalar que tanto los europeos como los indígenas americanos participaron en estos actos: el tratamiento de los ídolos en Nueva España no se puede dividir claramente en estrategias mesoamericanas versus mediterráneas. La comprensión de estas prácticas compartidas exige contextualizarlas en las historias prehispánicas y medievales, así como en el presente del Renacimiento europeo. No obstante, no cabe duda de que las acciones compartidas pueden ocultar significados radicalmente diferentes, y la sección final del ensayo considera cómo se tradujo el término castellano ídolo a diversos idiomas mesoamericanos. La antigua categoría del ídolo fue transformada al ser importada a las Américas. Al conectar las entradas del diccionario con los informes militares y misioneros a los archivos de la Inquisición, la producción de ídolos en la Nueva España de la temprana modernidad proporciona un contexto inesperado para revisar las preocupaciones clásicas, y las continuas posibilidades, del concepto de Doble Identidad Equivocada de James Lockhart.
RESUMO Idolatria é uma acusação. Palavra derivada do termo do grego antigo para veneração (latreia) de imagens (eidola), a idolatria provém um enquadramento para explorar as conexões e confusões do mundo Mediterratlântico no início da era moderna, onde as imagens falsas pareciam estar em toda parte. Esse ensaio examina a vida social dos ídolos na Nova Espanha do século XVI, concentrando-se em sua destruição, criação, escavação e mercantilização. Significantemente, todas as quatro ações foram performadas tanto por europeus quanto por nativos-americanos: o tratamento de ídolos na Nova Espanha não pode ser claramente dividido em estratégias mesoamericanas versus mediterrâneas. Compreender essas práticas compartilhadas requer sua contextualização em histórias pré-hispânicas e medievais, bem como no presente da Renascença na Europa. Entretanto, é claro que ações compartilhadas podem esconder significados radicalmente diferentes, e a seção final do ensaio considera como o termo castelhano ídolo foi traduzido em diferentes línguas mesoamericanas. A categoria antiga do ídolo, importada para as Américas, foi transformada em algo novo. Conectando verbetes de dicionários a relatórios militares e missionários a arquivos da inquisição, a produção de ídolos no início da era moderna na Nova Espanha provém um contexto inesperado para revisitar preocupações clássicas – e ainda as possibilidades geradoras – do conceito de Identidade Duplamente Equivocada de James Lockhart.
Idolatry is an accusation. Derived from ancient Greek terms for the veneration (latreia) of images (eidola), idolatry provides a framework for exploring the connections and confusions of the early modern Mediterratlantic world, where false images seemed to be everywhere.1 Protestants accused Catholics of idolatry, as did Catholics of Muslims and Muslims of Catholics—and, in the New World, Europeans of Native Americans, even as Native Americans questioned why Catholic sacred images were not idols as well.2 The following pages survey this pandemic idolatry panic in the archives of sixteenth-century New Spain, where the social lives of idols—which blurred boundaries of European and Native American—were strange indeed.3
A stereotypical view of these social lives is a simple one: either idols were destroyed by Europeans (broken, melted into ingots, and so on), or they were hidden by Indigenous people. Both certainly did take place—indeed, Indigenous people sometimes destroyed their own sacred images. But iconoclasm is only part of the story of the early modern idol. In New Spain, god-images were also manipulated in many nondestructive ways by Native Americans and Europeans alike. The following pages argue that the treatment of “idols” in Mesoamerica cannot be neatly divided into Indigenous versus Mediterranean strategies.4
In part, this essay is meant to complement canonical essays by Miguel León-Portilla (1974) and Jorge Klor de Alva (1982), who consider the wide range of Indigenous reactions to Christianity in sixteenth-century Mexico.5 In contrast, my idolatrous explorations are focused not on Christianity as a system of beliefs but on Mesoamerican sacredness as it was materialized in physical objects. And where León-Portilla and Klor de Alva center on Indigenous responses to Catholicism, I consider the constant parallels in how both Mesoamericans and Europeans reacted to certain images that Christian discourse defined as idols.
My focus on god-images—“idols” in the classic sense—also differs from Serge Gruzinski’s classic chapter on “Colonial Idolatry” in The Conquest of Mexico (1993). There, Gruzinski is interested less in idols per se and more with idolatry as mentalité, “a manner of seeing and acting” connected to things as ordinary as household fires and baskets.6 In this, he echoes the discourse of early modern missionaries, who also expanded the meaning of “idolatry” to refer to non-Catholic practices in general, regardless of whether they involved images. This broad definition of idolatry also characterizes more recent scholarship on the Inquisition and Indigenous people in New Spain.7 By contrast, the following pages argue that we can still learn much from microhistories of “colonial idolatry” in a very narrow sense: as involving the materiality and manipulation of (non-Christian) images.8 The first four sections each focus on a different destiny for Indigenous god-images in the viceroyalty of New Spain: destruction, creation, excavation, and commodification. Undertaken by both Europeans and Mesoamericans, such actions were often modeled on older precedents from both sides of the Atlantic. These shared viceregal practices are therefore placed in dialogue with examples from pre-Hispanic and medieval pasts, as well as from Europe’s Renaissance present.
But shared actions may conceal radically different meanings, and so the essay concludes by considering how the Castilian term ídolo was translated into different Mesoamerican languages. Mediterranean visions of the idol, once imported to the Americas, were remade into something new. Connecting dictionary entries to military and missionary reports to the archives of the Inquisition, the production of idols in early modern New Spain provides an unexpected context for revisiting the classic concerns—and still generative possibilities—of James Lockhart’s concept of Double Mistaken Identity.
The most infamous fate for god-images in New Spain was destruction. A typical example appears in the Second Letter of Hernán Cortés, written between June 16, 1519, and October 30, 1520. The scene is the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán:
There are three rooms within this great mosque [mesquita] where are kept the principal idols of marvelous grandeur and height and craftsmanship and figures sculpted both in stone and wood. And within these rooms are other chapels whose entrance doors are very small, and thus the chapels are not well-lit. And therein no one can enter except priests, and of these only a select few, and within are the bundles and figures of the idols, although, as I have said, there are also many idols outside. The most important of these idols, in whom they had the most faith and belief, I toppled from their seats, and I had them thrown down the stairways [of the pyramid] and I had the chapels where they had been kept cleaned, for these were full of the blood that they sacrifice, and I placed images of Our Lady and of other saints.9
Emperor Moctezuma II (r. 1502–20) was less than pleased by this iconoclasm, saying it would cause his subjects, “who held that said idols gave them all worldly goods,” to revolt. In response (wrote Cortés), “I made them understand through interpreters how deceived they had been in believing in those idols which were made by their own hands from unclean things, and that they had to understand that there was only one universal God, lord of all, who had created the heaven and earth and all things.”10
This was not the first time that Cortés (in his carefully crafted letters to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) described the installation of Catholic images in Indigenous temples, or quoted speeches about Christianity he supposedly delivered to Mesoamerican people. Nor would it be the last time (as we will see below) that he would claim to have paired the destruction of idols with the sowing of Catholicism. This kind of missionary iconoclasm had a long history, as Cortés was surely aware. Medieval narratives claimed that the very words of Christian proselytizers had the power to shatter idols in pagan lands, and these legends remained popular in early modernity. Figure 1, for example (from an altarpiece painted in Aragon in the second half of the fifteenth century) shows Saint Bartholomew snapping an idol in two simply by preaching.11
Cortés was not alone in his emulation of saintly discourse and destruction. In January 1525, Franciscan friars in Central Mexico organized a major campaign of temple demolition and image breaking.12 Friar Toribio de Benavente (“Motolinía”) writes of this devastation in his Historia de los indios de la Nueva España (1538–41). Significantly, he claims that god-images and stones from pre-Hispanic temples were recycled to build Catholic churches:
In order to build the churches they began to attack their temples in order to take from them stone and wood, and in this way they were left devastated and destroyed; and the idols of stone, of which there were an infinite number, did not escape being shattered and broken into pieces, but they came to serve as the foundations for the churches, and since many were very large, they became the best thing in the world as foundations for such great and holy work.13
Inquisitorial investigations would continue to search out hidden idols—and their worshippers—in the decades that followed. Documents recording these “episcopal inquisitions” in Central Mexico reveal that a number of god-images escaped the Franciscan purges in 1525. In July 1539, more than fifty such “idols” were found within the walls of two temples in the lakeside town of Texcoco. Indigenous witnesses said that these statues—model temples and coiled serpents, sculptures of Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, and Cihuacoatl—had been hidden there “seventeen years ago” during the “time that they destroyed the idols.”14 Once discovered, these images were sent across the lake to Mexico City, and the cacique of Texcoco was himself put on trial and executed.
But other images that went into hiding were more elusive. Later that same year, in December 1539, an investigation in Culhuacán sought to locate god-images that had been evacuated from Tenochtitlán before the city was conquered. One witness claimed that images were brought to Culhuacán when the Spaniards arrived by order of Moctezuma II.15 Another witness, however, testified that the images had been brought to Culhuacán “seventeen years ago, more or less”—that is, during the Franciscan persecutions of 1525.16 These two testimonies may not necessarily be contradictory: given the great number of god-images that had existed in Tenochtitlán, there may indeed have been many acts of sequestration, just as there were many acts of iconoclasm. What is especially intriguing about the Culhuacán testimonies about hiding god-images is just how dynamic this process was. Images were said to have been constantly on the move. They traveled from town to town and cave to cave, or to chambers beneath the floors of patios. Sometimes they stayed in a place only for a few days before being moved elsewhere.17 The clandestine circulations in and around Culhuacán were hardly exceptional, as many other investigations make clear.18
It is no surprise that Indigenous people worked to hide “the gods of their fathers” (as the cacique of Texcoco, don Carlos Ometochtzin, put it) from the destructive hands of European Christians. But it is perhaps surprising that the destructive hands involved in the smashing and burning of idols were sometimes those of Indigenous people. Indigenous converts to Christianity, especially children, often appear as iconoclasts in documents from early viceregal New Spain.19 Perhaps the most famous of these converts—whose actions brought two of them to their deaths—are three boys from Tlaxcala: Antonio, Juan, and Diego. Their story appeared for the first time (it would be often repeated) in a text we just encountered: Motolinía’s Historia de los indios de la Nueva España. According to Motolinía, these boys had been raised as Catholics at a monastic school in Tlaxcala. There they learned of the deaths of missionary martyrs: the crucifixion of Saint Peter, the decapitation of Saint Paul, the flaying of Saint Bartholomew (see Figure 1).20 When a Dominican friar asked for young converts to help in his mission to Oaxaca, these three volunteered.
Two of them did not travel far. On arriving in the town of Cuauhtinchan (about sixty kilometers from Tlaxcala), the boys begin to search for god-images, stealing them from peoples’ houses and smashing them. The actions of these Indigenous Christians were not tolerated for long. Two caciques from Cuauhtinchan captured young Juan and Antonio and clubbed them to death.21 The execution of the two iconoclasts quickly became part of Franciscan hagiography, and is still remembered in Tlaxcala. A plaque commemorating the two “beatos niños de Tlaxcala” (and another boy-martyr, Cristóbal) is placed in one of the side chapels of the Church of San Francisco (Figure 2).22
Juan and Antonio were not the only Indigenous converts to Christianity said to have destroyed Indigenous god-images in early viceregal New Spain. Hernán Cortés claimed to have inspired Indigenous people to destroy their own god-images during his 1524–26 expedition to Chiapas and Honduras. In the town of Çaguatezpan, for example, Cortés claimed that “I spoke at length to make them understand that they had to believe in God and serve Your Majesty [Charles V].” As a result, “those of that town of Çaguatezpan then brought some of their idols and in my presence they broke and burned them.”23 Soon afterward, Cortés described the town of Teuticarcar, saying, “It has very beautiful mosques, and in particular those where we lodged and threw out the idols, at which they [the Indigenous residents] did not show much grief because I had already spoken to them and given them to understand the error in which they had been and how there was no more than one God creator of all things.”24 In the town of Apaspolon, Cortés described how, as a result of his preaching, “they burned many of their idols in my presence and said that from now on they would no longer honor them.”25 And finally, at Lake Petén, Cortés claimed that, after hearing a sermon, the Maya lord Canek “said that he wanted then to destroy his idols and believe in that God which we had told him about and wished very much to learn the manner that he would have to have in order to serve Him and to honor Him, and that if I should wish to go to his town he would see that in my presence they [the idols] were burned. And he wished that I should leave for him in his town the said cross which they had told him I left in all the towns where I had been.”26 Cortés then traveled by canoe to Canek’s island capital, where “were burned and broken many idols, and a cross was placed afterward, with which they were very pleased.”27
Cortés’s accounts of Indigenous iconoclasm are complex narratives. As Ángel Delgado Gómez argues, Cortés seems to have emphasized the missionary nature of his 1524–26 expedition in order to justify what was, politically, not a very successful undertaking.28 Indeed, Cortés even described one incident in which Indigenous people remained unconvinced that they should abandon their deities. Before arriving in Çaguatezpan, Cortés and his expedition came to the town of Tatahuitalpan, burned and abandoned. Cortés had scouts explore the area. Half a league away, across the river, they found around twenty men in “a house of their idols.” Although their village had been abandoned, the men had remained behind “to die with their gods.” Cortés tried to convince them “how vain and crazy was their belief,” pointing out that some of the Indigenous people from his own expedition were already wearing ornaments robbed from (powerless) idols. But these men remained unconvinced, saying that “in this sect their grandfathers left them, and they had kept it and would keep it until they should know another thing.”29
In contrast to this notable example of Indigenous resistance to the Word of God, Cortés (as we saw above) usually claimed that his preaching brought about instant conversion, materialized in the burning and breaking of god-images by their Indigenous owners. But such actions may have been more complicated than they first appear. The Cortés expedition south in 1524–26 was one of exploration, not settlement. His small army usually stayed in each town only a few days before moving on. It seems clear that news of Cortés’s actions—and habits—traveled ahead of him along Indigenous networks of communication.30 The Indigenous idol destroyers in the towns of Çaguatezpan and Teuticarcar and in Canek’s kingdom on Lake Petén probably realized the foreign invaders would not hang around too long. The dilemma, then, would have been how to deal with these strangers until they left.
There are at least two ways to think about the Indigenous iconoclasm reported by Cortés without assuming (as in later stories told by Motolinía) that image destruction was a sign of Christian conversion. On the one hand, the destruction of sacred images was a well-known practice in the pre-Hispanic world. This might take place during times of warfare—and the images thus destroyed could be repaired. The 1539 inquisitorial investigation against the cacique of Texcoco (mentioned above) describes a wire-wrapped statue of Tlaloc. The image had been smashed to pieces during a pre-Hispanic conflict, but afterward the fragments were bound together with gold and copper.31 God-images were also destroyed for religious ceremonies. In Central Mexico, sculptures of the gods, “hewn in either wood or stone,” were discarded every fifty-two years as part of household cleansings before the New Fire ceremony.32 Many Mesoamerican societies created god-images meant to be ephemeral: figures of amaranth dough to be eaten, figures of copal and paper to be burned, figures in the form of ornamented humans to be sacrificed.33 So it may be that the Indigenous people Cortés met in the spring of 1525 interpreted his acts of iconoclasm in terms of their own practices of image destruction—and so provided him with ephemeral images for this newly introduced Christian holocaust.34
Alternatively, if these Indigenous people did recognize that Cortés’s iconoclasm was very different from its Indigenous parallels, they may have been careful in deciding which images to destroy, and which to conceal. This was another practice with pre-Hispanic precedents. A chronicle about the Aztec invasion of Cuitlahuacan during the reign of Moctezuma I (ca. 1440–69) claims that when the Aztecs demanded the patron god-image of Mixcoatl, the Cuitlahuacas instead handed over the (less important) image of Teuhcatl (who wore the same costume as Mixcoatl).35 During early post-Hispanic decades, this kind of strategic surrendering continued to be practiced by Indigenous people, once Catholic missionization made clear the exclusive, jealous nature of the Christian God.
Around 1539 (the year Texcocan idols were discovered and destroyed in Central Mexico) the Dominican friar Domingo de Santa María was serving as vicar in the Oaxacan town of Yanhuitlán. He called for the region’s sacred images to be brought to him for destruction. Idols were indeed delivered, and were publicly burned.36 But five years later, in the autumn of 1544, a raid on the palace of the Indigenous ruler of Yanhuitlán suggested that idolatry was still being practiced in the region, and that some idols had escaped Domingo de Santa María’s destructions. An investigation was begun, and the initial testimonies were sufficient—in the eyes of the newly arrived apostolic inquisitor in Mexico City—to call for the arrest of cacique don Domingo and governor don Francisco in early February 1545. Three weeks later, additional evidence was called for against the cacique and governor. A questionnaire was prepared for interrogating witnesses. Question five asked
if they know that perhaps six years ago the Father Friar Domingo de Santa María preached in the town of Yanhuitlán with the intention of destroying offenses against God, and many of the lords of subject towns brought their idols to burn and destroy, and seeing this the said don Francisco as governor of the said town [of Yanhuitlán] commanded that all should meet in his house, with the intention of castigating the said lords, asking them, “Why do you want to burn the gods of your fathers, believing the lies of the friars who preach the things of God, for everything is a joke except that which your ancestors have told you,” and he begged them that they should guard and serve the demon, and he who did not do this would have to be killed, and in order to comply with the said friar he [don Francisco] selected and set aside idols from each neighborhood so that they should be burned and the rest he commanded returned to be guarded.37
Several Indigenous witnesses agreed with this version of events: two former slaves of don Francisco, and an Indigenous priest from a town subject to Yanhuitlán. All three added a detail not present in the inquisitor’s leading question: that the images turned over were podrido: rotten, corrupt.38
The same strategy—of selectively turning over old god-images for destruction—is also reported some fifteen years later in the Yucatán, during the infamous inquisitorial campaign of Franciscan friar Diego de Landa.39 Like Domingo de Santa María (his Dominican counterpart), Landa called for Indigenous people to hand over their god-images for burning. But like the elites of Yanhuitlán, the elites of the Yucatán thought of a way to both comply and resist. On August 11, 1562, an accusation made by Juan Couoh (natural of the town of Yaxcabá) against Gaspar Chim (an Indigenous priest, ah-kin, of Yaxcabá) claimed that Chim advised other Maya as follows:
And this same ah-kin said that they should not reveal anything to the friars who had come from Maní if they should ask about the idols and that they should not bring out whole ones but rather the fragmented and broken ones so that the new and whole ones should remain so that they could continue trusting in them, for this [strategy] had been taught by the natives of the province of Maní. And the fathers and friars had received what they were given and were satisfied with the broken ones.40
Eventually at least some friars figured out what was going on, and were no longer satisfied with worn-out idols. On January 22, 1565, Gómez de Castrillo, a resident of Mérida, reported that Friar Miguel told the Maya bringing him broken idols that “he did not want those” “but only new ones.”41 In any case, it is significant—especially thinking about the networks of Indigenous communication revealed in Cortés’s Fifth Letter, discussed above—that Gaspar Chim does not claim to have invented this strategy of deception. Rather, he knows that it has already proved successful for Maya living in the nearby province of Maní.
In other words, when Indigenous people offered up their own sacred objects for destruction, their actions may not have been signs of agreement with the desires and models of Christian iconoclasts. On the one hand, the destruction of images had been an important part of pre-Hispanic religious practices. On the other, Indigenous people could offer certain sacred objects for destruction as a strategy to protect other sacred objects that had been hidden away.
The massive destruction of images in the New World caused by the coming of Christianity had paradoxical consequences. It often triggered the creation of new “idols.” We have just seen that one Indigenous strategy for dealing with Christian demands for sacred images to destroy was to provide iconoclasts with ones that were broken, corrupt, podrido. This was a way to preserve valued images from destruction. Another strategy was to provide iconoclasts with newly created images. A number of testimonies from Diego de Landa’s 1560s inquisitorial campaign report that, in addition to receiving images that were suspiciously old and broken, Franciscan friars also received images that were new. On July 12, 1562, Juan de Villalobos reported that “it was public and well-known” that the Maya made new idols to turn in (hacer algunos de ellos de nuevo). The same strategy was reported by Mérida resident Juan de Magaña six months later, on January 28, 1563.42 And the practice continued. On January 22, 1565, Mérida resident Gómez de Castrillo reported that “he saw that some indios went to the country and afterward returned and brought with them things of clay, made like an incense burner, and new, which looked like (and this proved to be the case) that they had been made that very day in order to comply with what they [the friars] had ordered.”43
Similar things took place twenty years earlier in Central Mexico. Franciscan friar Motolinía, whose Historia is quoted several times above, described a renewed search for idols by European Christians in 1539 and 1540 (perhaps referring to the inquisitorial investigations spearheaded by Mexico City’s bishop-inquisitor Juan de Zumárraga). Still sharing in the initial optimism of the Franciscan missionary campaign, Motolinía was skeptical of the necessity of these idol hunts. He claimed that “some of the yndios were so tormented that, to tell the truth, they made new idols and gave them up, so that they [the Spaniards] should stop mistreating them [the yndios].”44 In other words, these new Yucatecan and Central Mexican “idols,” created to be destroyed (and sometimes created as substitutions for other, more valued images) had much in common with the pre-Hispanic traditions of image sacrifice we just discussed.
But other “idols” were created to be honored, not surrendered. At least one inquisitorial investigation suggests that new god-images were made by Indigenous people in order to replace images that had been destroyed in missionary fires. On November 19, 1538 (a year before the investigations into the hidden idols of Texcoco and Culhuacán mentioned above), an unnamed Indigenous constable (alguacil) from the lakeside town of Azcapotzalco appeared before Zumárraga in Mexico City. He brought with him “certain idols carved in the round and other things of their sacrifices and rites,” including gourd cups filled with copal incense, Indigenous trumpets, and “two newly made idols.”45 He also named six of the residents of Azcapotzalco who had used these objects to perform idolatrous acts. Three seem to have been commoners: Juan, Martín, and Pedro. They had been directed in their idolatries (which included fasting and the offering of incense to god-images) by three nobles (prinçipales) from Azcapotzalco: Tacuxcalcatl, Huyçinaval (baptized as Francisco), and Tacatecle (baptized as Pedro). Two other nobles were also implicated, but they had fled: a man named don Felipe and another named Atonal.
The six accused men were then interviewed, and all confessed. Juan, Martín, and Pedro admitted to performing fasts and offering incense. Tacuxcalcatl, Huyçinaval, and Tacatecle admitted to commanding the idolatries to take place. Three of the accused addressed the nature of the ydolos de nuevo that had been confiscated and brought before the Inquisition. Juan, the first to be interrogated, identified the maker of these new god-images: “The said Atonal fled because he had made the said idols and sacrificed to them.”46 Martín also blamed Atonal with the fabrication of the two new idols, as well as other sacrificial paraphernalia.47 Tacatecle, however, said that he—along with Tacuxcalcatl and Huyçinaval—had actually ordered that the idols be made: “It is true that by the command of this witness, and that of Huyçinabal and Tacuxcalcatl (imprisoned principales of said town), the yndios called Pedro and Martín and the boy named Juan fasted for one hundred days, and offered incense and copal to Tezcatlipoca, and performed other ceremonies. And also by their command were made the two idols and the other things and materials which were shown to him and brought before Your Lordship, except for the trumpets.”48
The accused were found guilty, and their sentence was carried out the following Sunday, on November 24, 1538. The six left their prison in Mexico City dressed in pointed caps, with ropes tied around their necks. They were taken to the city’s markets and given one hundred lashes each. They were then brought across the lake to Azcopatzalco for a Mass in the town’s church, where they stood with crosses and burning candles in their hands. The confiscated ritual paraphernalia—including the two idols that had been newly made—were condemned to the fire. The final lines of this investigation report that “the said idols were burned, and all the other things of sacrifice, and the ashes were ordered thrown into the lake.”49
One of the claims repeated in the Indigenous testimonies from Azcopatzalco (and Texcoco and Tatahuitalpan and Yanhuitlán, as we saw earlier) is that their actions were performed “in their old way” or “according to which they were once in the habit of doing.”50 Indeed, the gods named in the Azcopatzalco documents—Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, Cihuacoatl—are recognizably pre-Hispanic. The making of these new images was therefore a continuation of older practices. As excavations in and around Mexico City’s Templo Mayor have revealed, late Postclassic artists from Central Mexico also created new sacred images based on much older models. The renovations of Coyolxauhqui’s image at the base of the Templo Mayor provide one example; others would include Aztec copies of much older Teotihuacano and Toltec artifacts from the Classic (300–900) and early Postclassic (900–1250) periods.51 In other words, creating new-ancient artifacts was an established tradition by the time the Europeans arrived.
That said, other references to the viceregal creation of new idols suggest that the coming of the Spaniards encouraged the production of new divinities. Remember how Cortés proudly reported the effects of his preaching on Canek, the Maya lord at Lake Itzá. Canek supposedly orchestrated the burning and breaking of god-images in his capital, and requested the gift of a cross. Yet Canek received something else as well: a horse with a wounded leg. Canek apparently hoped to restore the beast to health: “I do not know what he will do,” wrote Cortés. But however the steed died—of the wound or of old age—it was not forgotten. When Franciscan missionaries Juan de Orbita and Bartolomé de Fuensalida came to the Itzá capital in 1618, they discovered that an image of this horse, made of wood or clay, had been placed among the gods at the summit of one of the town’s pyramids. There it was receiving offerings—until Juan de Orbita smashed it to pieces with a rock.52
Similar sacred objects, also made possible by the presence of the Europeans, were revered in Oaxaca. In 1565, priest Diego Cano de Ojeda learned of the existence of a sacred cave near the town of Mitla in the valley of Oaxaca. Inside was “the head of a person whom they said was Spanish, all encrusted with stonework and along with it other very elegant masks of the same type.”53 It probably resembled the pre-Hispanic jeweled skull covered with turquoise mosaic excavated by archaeologists in Tomb 7 of Monte Albán, another site in the valley of Oaxaca. Yet more Oaxacan mosaic skulls are painted on the pages of pre-Hispanic Mixtec screenfolds (Figure 3).54 Thus a pre-Hispanic practice—encrusting skulls with mosaic work—was being continued in early viceregal Oaxaca, but using a new, imported material: European bone.
Twenty years earlier, a witness in the 1544–47 Yanhuitlán inquisitorial investigation testified that another far-traveled European skull was being honored in Oaxaca’s Mixteca Alta. On February 22, 1545, Luis Delgado (a European living in the town of Tilantongo) reported that a few days earlier he “found that in the estancia of Andúa which is subject to the said town of Yanhuitlán there was a repaired [renovado] pyramid, from which this witness and other Spaniards removed a great quantity of sacrifices and idols and thirteen or fourteen vessels filled with blood—one fresh, filled in the past three or four days—and the head of a Spaniard which according to what the yndios had been told had been brought from the town of Tepetl Tututla.”55 This was probably Tututepec, a major center on the Pacific coast. Whether or not this cabeca de un español had been embellished with stone mosaics (as with other ornamented Oaxacan skulls), we do not know. But we can assume that, in the eyes of its Indigenous guardians, this was a far-traveled sacred object whose existence and raw material had been impossible before the arrival of the Spaniards, and of Christianity.
It is not surprising that Indigenous people, faced with the mass destruction of their god-images, sought to replace or substitute them with new creations. But at least one incident in early viceregal Mexico reveals that a European Christian—a priest, no less—was also guilty, in the 1540s, of creating a new idol. Documents that investigate his crime have fascinating things to say about early modern idolatry, and how it was defined in the eyes of the Church. On April 4, 1540, Alonso de Linán, a resident of the town of Ocoytuco, came before bishop-inquisitor Zumárraga in Mexico City with a curious tale. He reminded Zumárraga of a planned visit, eight or nine months earlier, to the town of Ocoytuco (which Zumárraga held in encomienda). Right before the bishop was to arrive, Diego Díaz (the vicar of Ocoytuco) spoke to Linán and to another resident European, Luys Álbarez. Díaz had a long-standing grudge against the town’s Indigenous ruler, the cacique Cristóbal, and feared that Cristóbal would complain to Zumárraga during the latter’s visit. In order to prevent this, Díaz plotted to frame the cacique by placing a faked idolatrous offering in the cacique’s house. An idol had already been created, Linán reports: “Díaz himself made the said idol of wood and painted it with certain colored paints, and ornamented it with certain painted papers stuck to the body.”56 Díaz had plans to leave “sacrifices” before the planted idol: he told Linán to get a chicken, and to send a household servant to the market to buy quail to kill as well. Díaz had already gathered two “flowers of those that the yndios used to offer in their fiestas for the devils,” and Díaz’s Indigenous slave Madalena had amaranth seeds with which to prepare “a certain kind of bread that the yndios used to make to offer in the said sacrifices.”57 (This is probably a reference to the ephemeral amaranth dough images mentioned above). Díaz also possessed an Indigenous incense burner, and planned to call witnesses to the scene by sounding a native trumpet. Having laid out his plans, Díaz proposed that all three swear on a Bible not to reveal the plot. Linán and Álbarez, however, decided that the whole undertaking would be “a great wrong” (una gran maldad) and refused to participate. Díaz does not seem to have put the plan into action on his own.
This plot, however, hardly exhausted Díaz’s wickedness. He was also accused of having an Indigenous lover, of laughing when performing the Transubstantiation during Mass, and—on hearing that Luys Álbarez was angry with some of the native residents of Ximaltepeque—of sending Álbarez idolatrous evidence to plant there: “certain knives with which the yndios used to cut out hearts when they made a sacrifice and some copal and other things which he has forgotten.”58
After the 1540 depositions of Linán and Álbarez, the next documents in Díaz’s file are from November 1547. The wicked vicar had been arrested, and was being held in an episcopal jail. Significantly, the official accusation against Díaz accused him not of trying to fake an idolatrous offering, but of actually committing an act of idolatry: “The said Diego Díaz committed the grave offence of idolatry and heresy in making the said idol and the said ceremonies and wanting to make the said yndios commit idolatry and persuade Spaniards to do the same and to commit perjury, a thing of scandalous bad example.”59 Díaz, in his response, also accepted that the making of an idol would be an idolatrous act. But he denied ever making an idol, and so could not be guilty of idolatry: “He is not an idolater, for which he would have to make idols and he never in the presence of anyone ever made an idol, nor when alone.”60
This idea, that the very making of an idol was an act of idolatry, might at first seem odd, but it is of course in agreement with the Second Commandment, which forbids the creation of graven images (“You shall not make for yourself an idol”).61 And it also connects to ideas proposed by Talal Asad in his essay “Towards a Genealogy of the Concept of Ritual” (1993), which argues that contemporary notions of “religion” as being about belief have a very recent, Enlightenment origin. In many places, Asad reveals, “religion” is manifested by doing certain things.62 This helps explain why the fabrication of an idol by an early modern Christian, regardless of belief or intention (and even apart from the Second Commandment), was a dangerous thing. It was dangerous in itself, to be sure, but as the accusation against Díaz reveals it was also dangerous because the making of an idol might trigger other actions, the further idolatries of other Europeans as well as Mesoamericans: “wanting to make the said yndios commit idolatry and persuade Spaniards to do the same.” Idolatry, in other words, was understood by early modern inquisitors as a crime that anyone could commit in New Spain, Native American and European alike.63
Díaz, incidentally, escaped from prison and fled back to Europe, so his criminal investigation ended without a sentence.
Another way to bring “new” god-images into circulation was to dig old ones out of the ground, returning them to active participation in social life after decades, even centuries, of hibernation. References to Indigenous idol excavation appear both in Motolinía’s Historia as well as in testimonies from Diego de Landa’s inquisitorial campaign in 1560s Yucatán. Motolinía—again commenting on what he saw as the overzealous pursuit of idols by Catholics in 1539 and 1540—reported that “in some parts this went so far that the Indians went to look for the idols that were rotten [podrido] and forgotten beneath the earth.”64 He was quite aware of the inexhaustible richness of such idol archaeology: “If a hundred years from now they should dig in the courtyards of the temples of the ancient idols, they would always find idols, because they made so many.”65
Similarly, several Europeans in the Yucatán gave testimony that Indigenous people—needing to find idols to turn over to Catholic extirpators—were traveling to the ruins of Coba (at least two days away) to find ancient images. On January 28, 1563, Mérida resident Juan de Magaña testified that “many indios had gone to some old pyramids called Coban, which is more than twenty leagues from the said town and more than forty from the said province, to look for idols to give to the friars.”66 This practice continued. On January 22, 1565, Mérida resident Gómez de Castillo reported that Maya went to “Coba, which has some towns and old and ancient buildings,” in order to “look for idols [buscar idolos],” because the friars demanded it—and reinforced their demands with torture.67
These references to the Indigenous excavation of “idols” in sixteenth-century New Spain are brief, but they are in keeping with what we know about pre-Hispanic interactions with ruined sites and ancient artifacts. The ground surrounding the palace of bishop Zumárraga in the center of Mexico-Tenochtitlán was filled with ancient objects collected and reburied by the Mexica (as twentieth- and twenty-first-century archaeology has shown).68 Dozens of Formative (1500 BCE–300 CE) and Classic (300–900 CE) lapidary artifacts were deposited in the foundations of Tenochtitlán’s Templo Mayor, brought from areas within and beyond the valley of Mexico. Some of these ancient artifacts were probably requested as tribute offerings, causing conquered subjects of the Aztec emperor to excavate their landscape in search of antiquities.69 In other words, the idea of digging up objects from the ground, and then turning them over to foreign conquerors, seems to have pre-Hispanic precedents.
At the same time, the Aztecs are known to have conducted their own excavations in Central Mexico. One sixteenth-century source describes the collection of ancient artifacts at the site of Tula: “And Tolteca potsherds are there to be seen. And Tolteca bowls, Tolteca ollas are taken from the earth. And many times Tolteca jewels—arm bands, esteemed green stones, fine turquoise, emerald-green jade—are taken from the earth.”70 Similar practices are documented from Postclassic Yucatán. E. Wyllys Andrews V discovered an amazing cache of Formative greenstone objects buried by Postclassic Maya at the site of Chacsinkin.71 Mary Miller and Marco Samayoa suggest that the reason inquisitor Diego de Landa’s drawing of the El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá seems so accurate is because the building had been kept clear of encroaching vegetation by Postclassic and sixteenth-century Maya.72 The centuries-old pyramid was curated, maintained as a sacred historical site. Thus in both Central Mexico and the Yucatán, the excavation of ancient sacred objects was yet another way in which pre-Hispanic practices were continued—even encouraged—through the actions of Christian iconoclasts.
Europeans, too, went digging for buried things in the soil of sixteenth-century New Spain. Some of these excavations sought god-images, while others searched for the gold offerings and ornaments left with both “idols” and the dead. Motolinía begins his discussion of the events in Central Mexico in 1539 and 1540—a discussion in which, as already mentioned, he describes Indigenous people excavating buried idols, as well as making others anew—by speaking of European excavations for idols: “In the year ’39 and in the year ’40 a few Spaniards, some with authority and some without it, in order to demonstrate that they were zealous in the faith and thinking that it would achieve something, began to rummage around and disinter the dead, and to offer rewards to the Indians so that they would bring in idols.”73 This kind of European looting began at least as early as the battles for Tenochtitlán. In his Third Letter, Cortés wrote that “some Spaniards opened a tomb and found therein things of gold worth more than 1,500 castellanos.”74 Indeed, the raiding of tombs and temples became so common that a Royal Cédula on treasure taxation was promulgated in 1536. Of “all of the gold and silver and stones and pearls and other things, which will be found in burials tombs or graves or Indian temples, or in other places where they used to offer sacrifices to their idols, or other religious sites, hidden or covered up in houses or buried in the earth,” half was to go to the Crown.75
The search for buried treasure and buried idols by New Spain’s Europeans reflected general Renaissance trends. Humanist reclamations of pagan antiquity had transformed Mediterranean god-images—feared as idols when they were encountered in the Middle Ages—into art objects, eminently collectible.76 The expansion of Rome in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries meant that a number of ancient “idols” were encountered within the ruins of the imperial city, and they soon became expensive to acquire. The artist Michelangelo is said to have taken advantage of this market to further his fame. As reported in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (first published in 1550), late in the fifteenth century Michelangelo sculpted a stunning image of Cupid in Florence, buried it, and then sold it as an antique to Cardinal San Giorgio in Rome for two hundred ducats (far more than it would have been worth as a new creation).77
The search for buried treasures in the New World also reflected non-elite customs throughout early modern Europe. European commoners searched for hidden loot using both magical and non-magical means.78 A number of inquisitorial investigations from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Iberia tell of the use of magic spells by common people hoping to find treasure left by the Muslims; similar spells were used in contemporary England.79 Indeed, in 1542 the use of magic for English treasure hunting was declared a capital offense, punishable by death (although the act was repealed five years later).80 Early modern English treasure hunters used more direct methods as well: digging in obvious locations, such as raised barrow tombs.81
Given this European context, you will not be surprised to learn that treasure-finding spells were also used in early modern New Spain. In 1540, cleric Pedro Ruíz Calderón, a native of the Iberian town of Guadalajara, was accused of claiming to have the magical power to locate buried pre-Hispanic troves. In order to find the “many burials and other places where the natives used to bury their treasures,”82 Ruíz made use of a classic divinatory technique from Europe.83 A young boy was given a container of holy water to hold. By the light of a blessed candle, Ruíz read incantations from a special book, Para hallar los thesoros encubiertos (To Find Hidden Treasures) by Arnaldo de Villanueva. Visions of treasure then appeared in the water. Witness Juan de la Villa, for example, heard that after one such night of divination, Ruíz had seen “twelve woven palm boxes filled with gold and greenstones and a demon [god-image] in Huasteca style, with gold in its arms and feet.”84 Although Ruíz supposedly told several witnesses that he had permission from the pope to study this çiençia of treasure hunting (and even went on a papally approved underground trip to Hell), he denied these claims when summoned before the Inquisition.85 Nevertheless, he was found guilty of performing witchcraft, but received a light sentence. He had to stand during a Mass in the cathedral of Mexico City, head uncovered, with a burning candle in his hand.86
As the aforementioned Royal Cédula of 1536 reveals, one of the reasons that Europeans were digging in “burials tombs or graves or Indian temples” was to find objects to sell. Objects made of gold—such as the 1,500 castellanos worth of ornaments encountered by Cortés’s soldiers—would have been the most desired discovery, and the one most easily converted into coin. In addition, aesthetic developments in Europe—an interest in objects from across time and space to fill cabinets of curiosities—meant that there was a European market for imported New World “idols.” Several show up in the collections of Prince Philip (later King Philip II) as early as the 1540s; others were still in palace collections at the time of his death in 1598.87 Nevertheless, Motolinía stressed that the resale value of such greenstone idols to Europeans in Spain was, relatively speaking, low: “They [Europeans] hoped to find an idol of stone which would be worth as much as a city; and although I have certainly seen many idols that were adored and much esteemed among the Indians, and highly respected as principal gods, and some made of chalchihuitl which seems to me the most valuable [Mesoamerican] stone, I don’t think that in Spain you could get ten gold pesos for one.”88
But there was another potential market for excavated or confiscated god-images: Indigenous people. Several documents from early modern New Spain reveal that Europeans both considered and carried out the sale of “idols” to Native Americans. A first tale comes from an inquisitorial investigation that began in late summer 1536.89 Jeweler Juan Francisco was denounced to inquisitors by Francisco Vázquez, a former business partner. Vázquez made a number of accusations. He claimed that Juan Francisco consulted Indigenous fortune-tellers for various reasons (such as to learn about his wife when he was away on a business trip, and to learn if a certain mine would be productive). Juan Francisco supposedly voiced his anger about the execution of several men accused of being relapsed Jews. And he supposedly kept an Indigenous slave for a lover.
In response to Vázquez’s testimony, the Inquisition summoned Juan Francisco’s wife, Ana de Gallegos. She corroborated the accusations of Vázquez, and added an additional one: that her husband worked on Sundays and feast days, polishing gemstones. These accusations were enough for inquisitors to have Juan Francisco arrested. On July 20, 1536, Ana returned to offer more testimony. One of her new accusations is especially interesting. She claimed that her husband once bought some large bundles in Mexico City. They contained dolls imported from Flanders. But her spouse, Ana claimed, did not intend to sell them as children’s toys. He planned to sell them to Indigenous people as pre-Hispanic sacred bundles, with idols inside (Figure 4).90 (His business, incidentally, often brought him to Oaxaca, and he traveled past the Mixtec town of Yanhuitlán.) Ana claimed that she told her husband such a sale would be a terrible deed, but he supposedly responded by saying she didn’t know what she was talking about: “They are worth a lot to the yndios.”91 Ana went on to claim that he once had her cook a meal (minced onions and fried eggplant prepared in the same pot with meat) that she suspected was a Jewish recipe.
On July 31, 1536, the imprisoned Juan Francisco was questioned by inquisitors. He admitted a lot of potentially damning things. Both his mother and father came from families of converted Jews. He had indeed asked Indigenous diviners to tell the future for him, but only as a joke. He had indeed fathered a child with his Indigenous slave (who was now freed). But the supposed plan to send well-packed Flemish dolls to Indigenous people as bundled sacred idols was all a misunderstanding:
He said that it is true that he brought the said dolls from Flanders to joke with the indios and he doesn’t remember if he showed them to the indios or not; and in the end he wrote to Francisco de Terrazos telling him that if he should come to this city he [Juan Francisco] would leave the dolls with a Christian named Bernal in a chest with other things, and when he [Terrazos] arrived in this city the said Bernal opened the said chest and took the contents for idols, and he brought them to the bishop’s judge [provisor] at the time and denounced him saying that he performed sacrifices with the yndios and he showed the said bundles, and because of this Bernal was arrested.92
When Juan Francisco learned of Bernal’s arrest, he had gone to the provisor and told him it was all a joke: “For the love of God you should pardon the said Bernal.”93
Flanders—and above all the city of Antwerp—was indeed an important center for doll production in the sixteenth century. Fascinating work on the archaeology of childhood by Annemarieke Willemsen reveals that Netherlandish dolls (Poppenkopjes) were often made of wooden or clay heads attached to bodies of wood or cloth.94 The heads and hands were stuccoed and painted (as were religious statues) to simulate skin. An amazingly preserved example from around 1560—now named Agatha—is in the Hessisches Puppenmuseum, just outside of Frankfurt (Figure 5).95 Such dolls are also depicted in sixteenth-century paintings from both the Old World and the New.96 In a triple portrait from 1502, one of the sisters of future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V holds a doll wearing a long red dress (Figure 6). Another doll (fashions updated) appears in another Habsburg family portrait seventy-five years later (Figure 7). And just as the Mexican investigation suggests, similar dolls were exported to the Americas. An Indigenous girl from Virginia holds one of these far-traveled toys in a watercolor painted around 1585 by John White (Figure 8). Their delicate and lifelike skin probably explains why dolls from Flanders had to be carefully bundled for their transatlantic shipment to New Spain. Water, or hard blows, would damage them before they could be sold.
As we saw earlier in the case of idol-making “idolater” Diego Díaz, the manipulation of idols by Christians—even as a joke, or as part of an attempted frame—was thought to be extremely dangerous, both to Europeans and to Indigenous people. And so the official accusation made against jeweler Juan Francisco on August 3, 1536, took a somewhat hysterical tone:
9. That he has brought certain idols to the indios so that they should adore them, and when some people said to the said Juan Francisco, “Why are you bringing those idols to the indios, this is unconscionable,” he responded, “Be quiet, these are very valued among the indios, and they will give me a lot for them.”97
In the eyes of prosecuting attorney Rafael de Cervantes, the fact that these objects were not sacred bundles but instead well-packed dolls from Flanders was unimportant. They were going to be sold as idols, and that very intention had transformed them from toys into monstrosities.
Juan Francisco, then, had a number of serious charges lined up against him. Fortunately, however, he produced a whole series of witnesses who revealed that his two main accusers had ulterior motives. Ex-business partner Francisco Vázquez owed Juan Francisco a lot of money, and Ana de Gallegos, the wife, wanted to get out of her marriage. Their testimony was therefore contaminated, and invalid. On February 10, 1537, Juan Francisco was cleared of all charges.
This attempt to sell “idols” to Indigenous people, then, was really a joke, and did not involve Mesoamerican god-images at all. But it was not an isolated case. Three years later, on November 22, 1540, the Council of the Indies wrote a letter to bishop Zumárraga, chastising him for the 1539 execution of the cacique of Texcoco, don Carlos Ometochtzin (see above). Councillors stressed that even in Spain, among former Muslims converted to Christianity long before, sentences for religious sins were light. Spiritualpenances should be applied to Indigenous people in the New World, not capital punishment.98 Indeed, the councillors continued, rather than pursuing Indigenous idolaters, it would be far better to pursue those Spaniards who had been selling idols to Indigenous people:
We believe they [Indigenous people] would have gotten a better lesson, and more edifying to the said indios, if you had proceeded against the Spaniards who are said to sell them idols, who merit punishment far more than the said indios who buy them [the idols].99
It is doubtful that this letter refers to the investigation of Juan Francisco three years before (his trial did not last long, and he was found innocent). This means that, in addition to the faux-example of Juan Francisco, there must have been other cases of Spaniards selling actual god-images to Indigenous people—cases prominent enough to come to the attention of the Council of the Indies across the ocean in Madrid.
Idol commodification was a problem that did not go away. Bartolomé de las Casas complains about the practice in two of his manifestos from 1552. Entre los remedios . . . para reformació de las Indias relates the following anecdote to attack the idea that encomenderos could be trusted with evangelization:
Lord, what a preacher and priest such a Christian would be, who (the Indians of a certain province having handed over their idols to religious men, affirming their desire to be servants of the true God Christ) brought from other regions certain loads of idols, and took them out in the marketplace to sell them and trade them for slaves to the same Indians.100
Casas makes similar accusations in his Breuissima relacion de la destruycion de las Indias. In the chapter “De la nueua España y Panuco y Xalisco,” he tells this sorry tale:
A certain tyrant going as inspector at this time (more to rob the goods and property of the yndios, than to care for their souls or persons) discovered that certain yndios had hidden their idols, as if the pathetic Spaniards had never taught them of another, better God. He arrested the lords so that they should give him their idols, believing that they were of gold or silver, for which he cruelly and unjustly punished them. And so that he not be defrauded of his goal, which was to steal, he forced the said caciques to buy back their idols from him, and they bought them with the gold and silver that they could find, so that they could adore them as gods, as they were accustomed. These are the deeds and examples by which the wicked Spaniards honor God in the Indies.101
A few pages later, in the chapter “Del reyno de Yucatan,” Casas recounts a parallel story:
One of these infernal impious thieves, named Juan García, was sick and near death. He had underneath his bed two loads of idols, and he called to an yndia who served him, that she should look carefully at those idols which were there, and should not give them in trade for chickens, because they were very good, but rather [should trade] each one for a slave. And finally, with this “testament” and concerned with this issue, the miserable man died, and who doubts that he is not entombed in Hell.102
Certain kinds of objects, Annette Weiner argues, resist circulation. Such “inalienable possessions” have a kind of density, a weight, that makes it difficult for them to move from one owner to another. Family heirlooms, the regalia of a particular polity—these are “symbolically dense objects.” But regardless of their social inertia, all objects can eventually be put in motion, entering “exchange or the marketplace.”103 What is fascinating about the Council of the Indies’ concerns about the sale of god-images back to Indigenous people, and the specific examples given by las Casas, is that those culturally dense objects—those “idols”—having been shifted from their temples or their hiding places beneath the earth (whether through theft, excavation, inquisitorial procedure, or surrender), then entered the market as commodities—but only so that, through purchase, they could be turned into “ex-commodities,” regaining their sacredness and becoming inalienable possessions once more.104
CONCLUSIONS: TRANSLATING IDOLATRY, OR, DOUBLE MISTAKEN IDENTITY
“In the remainder of the present paper I wish to discuss several aspects of sociopolitical life (with an example or two from the artistic realm as a sidelight) in which indigenous ways of thinking existed under Spanish auspices or put their stamp on ostensibly Spanish-derived forms. . . . My purpose here is not to dwell on these phenomena from the world of art, but simply to use them to give a context for the operation of the same principle in pre- and postconquest social organization.”—James Lockhart, “Some Nahua Concepts in Post-Conquest Guise,” 1985105
“In both bodies of material and in both modes of expression, the Nahuas see and assess the Spaniards, their things, and their ways from outside Spanish culture, feeding visual and other direct sensory impressions into the normal indigenous interpretive framework.”—James Lockhart, “Sightings: Initial Nahua Reactions to Spanish Culture,” 1994106
The practices we have just surveyed are united by one feature: they all involve “idols.” That is, all are documented in Castilian-language texts that condemn certain objects as ídolos. This history of images has always been filtered through accusatory alphabetic records. Comparable objects may survive, or be themselves illustrated in other works of art, but such things are not the central sources for my essay. Indeed, military chronicles and inquisitorial files usually end with their subject images being destroyed: “The said idols were burned, and all the other things of sacrifice, and the ashes were ordered thrown into the lake.” The reconstruction of lost artifacts and vanished prototypes has a long history in the history of art, but in conclusion I want to focus on issues of method in the viceregal Americas that are relevant to art historians and historians alike.107 The final pages of this essay therefore consider other languages, another genre of document, and James Lockhart’s concept of Double Mistaken Identity.
First introduced in the second-to-last paragraph of “Some Nahua Concepts in Post-Conquest Guise” (1985), and prominently evoked a decade later in the second paragraph of “Sightings: Initial Nahua Reactions to Spanish Culture” (1994), Double Mistaken Identity is a process “in which each side of the cultural exchange presumes that a given form or concept is operating in the way familiar with its own tradition and is thus unaware of or unimpressed by the other side’s interpretation.”108 Nahuas (mis)interpreted European objects and practices through Nahua conceptual frameworks, and Europeans (mis)interpreted Nahua objects and practices through European conceptual frameworks. Thus were created “working misunderstandings” that never quite aligned. Developed to critique Hispano-centrism as well as Indigenous isolationism, Lockhart’s explorations of Double Mistaken Identity were based on careful readings of Indigenous documents, and on assumptions of profound and constant interactions between Europeans and Native Americans.
Lockhart was a disciplinary historian, and his research focused (like the pages you have just read) on alphabetic texts. Nevertheless, both of his foundational texts on Double Mistaken Identity engage with questions of the visual, if in quite different ways. For the 1985 essay, visual culture is a “sidelight”: a brief discussion of decorative repetition in pre-Hispanic and tequitqui (Euro-Indigenous) architecture.109 In contrast, visuality is central to the 1994 essay—not for nothing is it titled “Sightings.” There, Lockhart focuses on what the alphabetic record reveals about Nahua ways of (literally) seeing the Spaniards, their actions, and their material culture. He is particularly interested in Nahuatl neologisms created to describe European objects and practices during the first generation of contact. Thus firearms were named tlequiquiztli (fire trumpets), focusing on how those weapons looked and sounded, and not their deadly force. Other visual neologisms were applied to Catholic practices, and these also emphasized surface appearances—not the sacred meanings important to Europeans. “To baptize” was rendered as quaatequia: ‘to pour water on someone’s head.’ “To confirm” was quailpia: ‘to tie [a ribbon on] someone’s head.’ With these types of translations, Lockhart argues, “the Nahuas hardly entered into the substance of Spanish culture at all, viewing it as a set of discrete sensually observable phenomena (mainly visually observable) to be integrated into their own conceptual-linguistic framework.”110
But a more complex lexical-conceptual process was involved when the Nahuas (and other Mesoamerican peoples) were asked to view their own sacred objects through the Castilian category of ídolo, and then translate that imported-imposed category into their own languages. Double Mistaken Identity, in those cases, doubled back.
Understanding this kind of translation begins in the Iberian university town of Salamanca. There, in 1492, professor Antonio de Nebrija published a Latin-to-Castilian dictionary. That Lexicon was part of Nebrija’s larger project to improve the quality of Latin education in Iberia. In typical humanist fashion, he wanted to restore Latin to its antique purity, stripping away the “corrupt” excrescences of “barbaric” medieval usage. Three years later, in 1495, he published a Castilian-to-Latin Vocabulario. In 1503, these two halves were published together, pioneering the dual-direction translating dictionaries that we still use today.111 The work was a best-seller, reprinted dozens of times. In turn, the Castilian word list from the dictionary’s Castilian-Latin half was frequently used to generate new, Castilian-to-non-Latin dictionaries. In Europe, for example, Nebrija’s Castilian terms formed the basis for translating dictionaries of Arabic, Tuscan, French, and English. Copies of Nebrija’s dictionary were also carried to the Americas, and there they shaped the creation of translating dictionaries for Indigenous languages. In the process, a list of Castilian words originally assembled for the interpretation of Roman antiquity was repurposed as a framework for the collection of terms in Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixtec, P’urhépecha, Otomi, Quechua, and more.
Most of these American-language dictionaries were orchestrated by missionary friars, and so the antique Mediterranean category of “idol” is often translated.112 The Castilian word ídolo comes from the Latin idolum, which in turn derives from the ancient Greek eidola (image, double, apparition, dream, phantom). Humanist that he was, Nebrija noted this lexical history in the entry for idolum in his original 1492 Lexicon: “Idolum. i.por idolo o estatua.gr” [‘Idolum. for idol or statue. Greek’]. When Nebrija published his reversed Castilian-Latin Vocabulario in 1495, the Castilian term ídolo was given two entry lines. Together, they mapped the rich signification of this ancient concept, linking material images to immaterial spirits:
Idoloen griego. idolum.i.phantasma.atis.113
Translating both Castilian and Latin portions into English, these are: ‘Idol. Statue and simulacrum and specter’ and ‘Idol in Greek. Idol and phantom -tasm.’
But what happened when Native Americans were asked to translate this exotic antique category into their own languages? Our oldest Castilian-Nahuatl vocabulary is actually a handwritten copy of a 1516 edition of Nebrija’s Castilian-Latin dictionary, in which Nahuatl terms (recorded in red ink) follow the black-ink Castilian-Latin entries. Uniquely for New Spain, this manuscript dictionary seems to have been created by and for Indigenous users.114 No Nahuatl translation is given for Nebrija’s ‘Idol in Greek,’ but “Idolo. statua.e.simulachrú.i.spectrú.i.” is translated as “tlacatecolon ixiptlaiotl.”115 Based on other entries in the manuscript, this is probably a made-to-order neologism. The basic sense is ‘demon image,’ which shows the extent to which Christian devaluations of the antique category of the idol were taken up by Native American converts.116
In contrast, a Castilian-Nahuatl dictionary published in 1555 (coordinated by Franciscan friar Alonso de Molina and based on a 1545 printing of Nebrija) contains a very different series of terms for translating ídolo: “Ydolo. tequacuilli, teteotl. nenetl. toptli. colotli.”117 Far from being demonic, these Nahuatl terms seem to reflect pre-Hispanic categories for sacred images. The tequacuilli was a statue; teteotl literally meant a stone god; the nenetl was a figurine; toptli meant box or sheath or cover (probably pointing to the importance of bundling and concealing divine images in cloth wrappings); and colotli referred to a framework, such those of wood or reed used to create ephemeral images of the gods and goddesses.118
Molina’s dictionary was republished in an expanded, bidirectional format in 1571 (Castilian to Nahuatl/Nahuatl to Castilian), and the entries for “idol” were expanded as well.119 The general entry of Ydolo was followed by a materially specific Ydolo labrado de madera, o palo labrado (‘Idol carved from wood, or carved stick’). This printing of Molina was then used as a model for other dictionaries to the south, and its material focus seems to have been influential. In the valley of Oaxaca, for example, the single entry for ídolo in a 1579 Castilian-Zapotec dictionary offers two translation options: “Ydolo. Pitòo-yàga, pitào quìe.” Pitòo and pitào were both terms for ‘god’ or ‘deity.’120 Yaga meant ‘wood,’ quìe ‘stone.’ In these translations, then, the idol was a ‘god of wood’ or a ‘god of stone.’ We saw above that ‘stone god’ was a category also offered to translate “idol” into Nahuatl. But the neat symmetry of the two Zapotec entries is, perhaps, too neat—especially given that this dictionary’s creators had Molina’s entry for Ydolo labrado de madera as a model. So are these two Zapotec terms truly pre-Hispanic, or are they neologisms inspired by Molina’s wooden entry and Dominican arguments for the dead materiality of false deities?
A few years later (after 1585), Molina’s 1571 Castilian-Nahuatl dictionary was used as a model for a dictionary translating Castilian to Yucatec Mayan.121 Once again, the materiality of idolatrous images is stressed in the entries: first Ydolo, estatua de barro (‘idol, statue of clay’), and then Ydolo de palo (‘idol of wood’).122 The second is translated as culche, an ‘image of wood.’123 The first, however, is translated as patbil kat, ‘a molded thing for making requests,’ which juxtaposes materiality with potential power.124
But something much stranger took place when “idol” was translated into Mixtec (Dzaha Dzavui, ‘Rain Speech’) for a dictionary published in 1593. Although its Castilian entries overall were based on both the 1571 Castilian-Nahuatl dictionary and the 1579 Castilian-Zapotec dictionary, its idolatrous entries significantly depart from those models.125 “Ydolo. dzavui” is followed by “Ydolo de los montes y cerros. quacu.”126 Dzavui, the Mixtec word offered as a translation in the first entry, was the name for ‘rain.’ Rather than a generic category of image, then, ydolo-as-dzavui makes reference to a specific sacred force. Quacu, the term offered as a translation of ‘idol of mountains and hills,’ is more opaque, but it seems to have been used by the Mixtec to refer to sacred images. In the aforementioned Yanhuitlán idolatry investigation of 1544–47, bundled images of Mixtec gods and goddesses were referred to as “quacu so-and-so.” In other words, the Indigenous collaborators who helped create the 1593 Mixtec dictionary refused to demonize or debase the category of idol, or to stress image materiality, but instead sought to translate its antique sacred significance in terms of similarly sacred categories from their own pre-Christian culture. Translating idol as ‘rain’ seems to be a particularly powerful refusal to use imposed European frameworks for understanding the Indigenous sacred world.
The concept of the “idol” probably seemed fairly straightforward to the European conquerors and missionaries who carried the term with them to the New World. But when Native Americans were asked to translate this ancient Old World category to their own languages, they responded in very different ways. The translations of ídolo in sixteenth-century Mesoamerican dictionaries provide us with a complex variation of the processes of seeing, interpretation, and translation that so fascinated Lockhart. These dictionary entries capture situations in which Native Americans were asked to view, and then describe, their own sacred images as filtered through the “interpretive framework” of Catholic condemnation and humanist linguistics. This involved a conceptual estrangement of the Mesoamerican, even when that estrangement was resisted—a process quite different from Mesoamerican observations of the European that “hardly entered into the substance of Spanish culture.”
The contrast between Spanish culture “watched from afar” (tlequiquiztli, quaatequia, quailpia) versus the Spanish missionary-humanist framework in which ídolo translations were generated (tlacatecolon ixiptlaiotl, patbil kat, dzavui) points to something quite curious about the examples of Double Mistaken Identity in Lockhart’s two fundamental and foundational essays. The European half of the equation is always summarized very briefly, in a sentence or two—watched from afar—before moving on to a much longer exploration of the Indigenous parallel.127 We are told of the Hispanic municipality-province, Spanish town councils, Hispanic career ladders, the Spanish rotation of municipal offices, Spanish instruments of legislation, European practices of land claims, the European tradition of the noble steed, European literary genres.128 And yet, vexingly, such tantalizing visions of European ethnohistory are not paired with Europeanist citations, making it very difficult for the interested reader to explore those exotic Old World customs.
Lockhart, whose early scholarship focused on Spaniards in Peru and their transatlantic connections, probably assumed that such references were so obvious (in the then-Eurocentrizing practices of Latin American scholarship) as to be unnecessary—especially given the urgent need to illuminate the Indigenous component of the equation. But Lockhart’s asymmetry has produced an unfortunate legacy, which continues to leave obscure the strange and fragmented world of early modern Europeans. Searching for “Double Mistaken Identity” in JSTOR or Google Books reveals that although Lockhart’s concept is still cited, its potential for restructuring histories of Latin America and its elsewheres has yet to be fully realized.129
Lockhart begins his 1985 essay by recounting the historiography of Mesoamerican research, based on sources used: first military chronicles (the work of William H. Prescott), then missionary reports (the work of Robert Ricard), and then documents generated by New Spain’s bureaucracies (starting with Charles Gibson, and continued in Lockhart’s own scholarship). “Sightings” adds another source to the mix: missionary dictionaries translating Castilian to Nahuatl. The pages you have just read have worked to interconnect these different sources, and to pay equal attention to the actions and interpretive frameworks of Europeans and Native Americans alike. Accusations of idolatry in early modern New Spain reveal one way to write fully symmetrical histories of Double Mistaken Identity: early modern entanglements of Indigenous and European worlds that were inseparable from (and unintelligible without) their pre-Hispanic and medieval roots.130