The Conquest of the native populations of South America by European explorers presents us with one of the most interesting instances of what one might refer to as a “coaxed” cultural change. That is, the Natives were neither given much of a choice in whether or not to adopt European though pattern and religious traditions, nor, and especially in the case of religion, did they necessarily have to be forced outright. The ease with which the adoption of religious traditions in particular occurred in the New World was often affected by various similarities and differences between Native and European religious traditions.
Similarities between Native and European religious beliefs were present and more numerous than one might think. However, they were also superficial, serving only to obscure what were at bottom drastic and fundamental differences. Thus, paradoxically, in addition to making it more difficult for missionaries to present Christianity as separate from the already present Native belief systems, similarities also encouraged miscommunication and misunderstanding on both sides and frequently hindered genuine conversion.
For example, there were striking similarities between Native and Christian religious practices, including similarities between the Christian practices of fasting and communion and the Native practice of fasting followed by consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Native term for which literally translated to “the flesh of god”. Despite these ritual similarities at a broader level, missionaries typically found the details of Native ceremonies to be very disturbing. Insects, snakes, and human blood – all symbols of darkness and filth in the Christian religious tradition – were often featured prominently in Native rituals. Thus, there was a strong contrast between the Christian respect for ritual purity and the Native respect for the raw, natural power that they felt could be harnessed from the use of these “filthy” objects.
More optimistic missionaries assumed that these similarities were evidence of some sort of divine preparation of the Natives. However, because the surface similarities between Native and Christian rituals were coupled with these much stronger – even if initially less apparent – contrasts, some missionaries believed that the similarities between Christian and Native rituals were not only superficial, but diabolical imitations. The rationale behind this was that the similarities could not be a coincidence. However, because of the more fundamental differences between the two religious traditions, neither could they be a result of genuine similarity.
Due in part to this misinterpretation of Native rituals, by the mid-sixteenth century, Native culture and religion were viewed as demonic by many Spaniards. Thus, despite their typical exemption from more severe inquisitorial punishments, Natives were easily suspect to charges of diabolism. The more the Natives were perceived as under demonic influence, the more aggressive Spanish missionaries became in their conversion efforts, and the more they attempted to encourage the adoption of the Christian concepts of salvation and freedom from demonic influence into the Native worldview.
Christian efforts to teach Natives about the concept of salvation from personal sin and demonic influence were, for the most part, unsuccessful. The idea of personal sin was completely alien to the Native mentality. In addition, the very savior figure that Christians presented so fervently made no sense to Natives. While Christian theology tends to be very linear, beginning with the fall of man and culminating in Christ’s sacrifice to atone for sin, the Native conception of the world is much more cyclic. The world is constantly going through cycles of transformation, and continual sacrifice plays an important role in these cycles, the imbalance of which could easily place the whole cosmos in jeopardy. This explains in part why Native ritual sacrifice continued throughout the conversion process despite the Natives’ eagerness in accepting some Christian practices. While the Natives wanted to incorporate the Christian gods, they were not willing to stop practicing rituals which they saw as necessary for the preservation of the world as a whole.
This difference in worldview – linear vs. cyclic – rendered the main idea of Christianity – salvation through Christ’s personal sacrifice – completely incomprehensible to Natives. One human sacrifice could never be sufficient to sustain the balance between humans and the divine, because the constantly unstable cycles of creation and destruction demanded equally constant and cyclic sacrifice. This fundamental difference between Native and Christian worldviews also contributed to the more negative aspects of the conversion impact. Natives were profoundly disturbed by the ban of sacrifice, and there is some speculation as to whether the ban on sacrifice contributed to social disturbance, violence, and mortality among the Natives.
Not only did the Natives fail to grasp the concept of original sin and view the savior of Christianity as backwards and ineffectual, but they especially misinterpreted missionary efforts to eradicate “diabolism”. The Christian distinction between good and evil was completely alien to the Native conception of the world. In Native theology both benevolence and evil were considered essential to divinity, thus giving way to a duality of good and evil within each deity. This duality also entailed a Native view of “evil” and “destruction” as ultimately morally neutral. Both chaos and order, evil and good were necessary forces in human existence, and neither could logically be absent, either within a single deity, or within the world at large. Thus, missionary efforts to combat diabolism by contrasting the total goodness of God with the total depravity of Satan only confused Natives further and in no way significantly aided conversion. Also due to Native monism, missionary attempts to discourage “sinful” and “diabolic” behavior among the Natives by emphasizing the existence of Satan only served to present them with yet another deity to add to their pantheon. This in turn increased the missionary aggression and, in some cases, led to violence against Natives who were caught in “satanic” practices.
Another major contrast between the Native and European religious worldviews which significantly hindered genuine conversion was that of the highly syncretic and polytheistic Native mentality vs. the strict monotheism of the conquering Spaniards. As increasingly aggressive, and in many cases violent, conversion efforts were seen, the Natives understood readily that open worship of any gods aside from the gods of the Christians would not be tolerated. However, far from encouraging a real change in though, this aggression only caused many Natives to continue their previous religious practices in secret.
We have seen how missionary efforts were severely hindered by both differences and surface similarities between Christianity and Native religions. Why then was Christianity able to propagate among the Natives, so much so that many of their modern day descendants call themselves Christians? In the case of the Natives of Mexico, we have at least one example of a figure that helped unite, rather than divide, Native and Christian religious traditions: the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In 1531, a converted Native, Juan Diego, was visited by an apparition of a figure whom he took to be the Virgin Mary. The figure instructed Diego to have a church built in her honor on the Hill of Tepeyac, a previous site of worship for the goddess Tonantzin. both fellow Natives and the Catholic Church eventually accepted Diego’s story as true.
Obviously, it is not possible to know what really happened or why Juan Diego was visited by the Virgin, or at any rate believed that he was. However, it is possible that the conquered Natives may have seen the Virgin Mary, with all of her similarities to some of their own Native goddesses, as a comforting mother figure, much more down-to-earth and accessible to the Native mentality than a distant, Supreme God, the image of which likely would have been discomfiting to such a strongly polytheistic people.
It has been speculated that Guadalupe’s worshipers associated here with Tonantzin, the Mother of the Gods and a goddess of birth and health. The conquering Spaniards were also sympathetic to Guadalupe, seeing her as identical to the Virgin Mary, who was perhaps deliberately appearing in a form that Natives would be more likely to accept.
Nonetheless, even in the benevolent Guadalupe, we find significant underlying differences between Native and European interpretations. For the Spaniards, the Virgin Mary, and therefore Guadalupe, was a whole “identity” in her own right, possessing a fundamentally good, pure, and nurturing nature. However, for many Natives, Guadalupe represented only the most benevolent facet of the ultimately triune mother goddess, who also possessed a darker side. Tonantzin, like most Native deities, demanded sacrifice, both animal and human. However, this is one instance in which differences between Native and European interpretations did not significantly hinder an eventual harmony between the two views. Guadalupe appears to have brought a degree of comfort to the conquered Natives, even as she satisfied Catholic orthodoxy.
The Virgin Mary’s association with Native goddesses was not the only, nor the earliest, advantage that missionaries had in their conversion efforts. The Conquest itself gave the missionaries a great advantage; the Native’s defeat was proof of the superiority of the Spanish gods from their perspective. European-brought diseases, which did not affect the Spaniards as much as the Natives due to acquired immunity, also served as proof to the Natives that their gods were powerless against the gods of their conquerors. Early and superficial conversion enthusiasm among the Natives was likely due to a combination of this belief and their generally syncretic tendencies. However, these advantages ultimately proved slight in aiding the missionaries in their overall goal: to have the Natives abandon their own religious beliefs and traditions entirely in favor of those of Christianity.
Ultimately, how one views the similarities and differences between Native and Spanish religious thought and tradition as either helping or hindering conversion depends on how one chooses to define “conversion”. If conversion is taken to mean full Native adoption of an orthodox Catholic worldview, it is clear that the fundamental differences between Native and Catholic theology rendered the latter too alien to the Native worldview and created so much misunderstanding that natives never fully adopted Christianity as a replacement for their own religious traditions.
If, however, once chooses to view conversion in a less strict sense, as simply the process by which Native religious traditions were influenced significantly, (and, in many cases, permanently), by missionary efforts, it is equally clear that similarities between the two religious traditions eased the process, and that, due to the impact of the Conquest itself and the syncretic tendencies of the Natives, differences between them often failed to significantly hinder it.
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Burkholder, Mark A. and Lyman L. Johnson. Colonial Latin America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Cervantes, Fernando. The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1994.
Taylor, William B. “The Virgin of Guadalupe in New Spain: An Inquiry into the Social History of Marian Devotion.” American Ethnologist 14, no. 1 (1987).
Wolf, Eric R. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol.” The Journal of American Folklore 14, no. 279 (1958).
Castillo, Ana, editor. Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the VIrgin of Guadalupe. New York, United States: Riverhead Books, 1996.