The God Eaters

Ronan’s post on transubstantiation (which fittingly identified a “bridge” that Mormonism, as the Restoration, can build between the Catholic and reformed perspectives on the meaning of John 6:51-58) got me thinking about one of Heinrich Heine‘s “historical” poems in his Romanzero, a collection of poems divided into three books, published in 1851.

Folio 70 from the Codex Magliabechiano, circa 1550 (source: http://tinyurl.com/q3grs5l)

Folio 70 from the Codex Magliabechiano, circa 1550 (source: http://tinyurl.com/q3grs5l)

Even to a thoroughly bloodsoaked religious terror culture such as that of Catholic Spain in the early 1500s, the highest religious rites of the Aztec Empire utterly shocked the conscience. For example, “[w]hen the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan was consecrated in 1487 the Aztecs recorded that 84,000 people were slaughtered in four days,” though this figure is disputed and might have been somewhat lower on that occasion.

But this scene appears to have been a frequent feature of Aztec religion, whose priests made regular offerings of slave hearts to Huitzilopochtli, their chief God, the god of sun and war. Tales of this bloody specter do not appear to have been mere Spanish propaganda used to justify their conquests: “archaeological evidence suggests human sacrifice was indeed a regular aspect of Aztec religious practices. And the zeal with which it was practiced can be traced back to the political reforms of one man—imperial vizier Tlacaelel, who, in 1428, launched a campaign of religious codification, military development, and territorial expansion that would, for lack of a better term, really piss off the Aztec’s neighbors.” The macabre ritual has captivated the attention of artists throughout the ages, including in the Romantic period during the 1800s.

Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1830 (source: http://tinyurl.com/peeqcv4)

Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1830 (source: http://tinyurl.com/peeqcv4)

Heinrich Heine, a German Jewish poet writing from Paris in exile from German censorship in the 1840s and 50s, contemplated the encounter of Hernán Cortés and his company with the Aztecs and their ritual of human sacrifice in his poem “Vitzliputzli”, which was a German variation of the Sun God’s name Huitzilopochtli. The poem is fascinating in its treatment of transubstantiation from the Aztec priests’ point of view.

Part I of the poem recounts the tale of the Spaniards’ fight to escape from the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan after the death of Moctezuma II at their hands. Cortés loses many of his men and then in Part II the survivors endure watching, from a distance in hiding, the human sacrifice of 80 of their comrades who, in the poem, had been taken captive. (Translations my own.)

In Part II we are introduced to Vitzliputzli:

Dort auf seinem Thronaltar Sitzt
der große Vitzliputzli,
Mexikos blutdürst’ger Kriegsgott.
Ist ein böses Ungetüm

There on his throne-altar sits
the mighty Vitzliputzli,
Mexico’s bloody God of War.
He is an evil monster.

The blood-robed high priest reflects the bizarre and sinister god he serves:

Auf des Altars Marmorstufen
Hockt ein hundertjährig Männlein,
Ohne Haar an Kinn und Schädel;
Trägt ein scharlach Kamisölchen.

Upon the altar’s holy stair
squats a hundred year old man
chin and skull are bald of hair
body drap’d in crimson robe.

The priest riles up the crowd and the horrible sound of their fanatical frenzy reaches Cortés and the survivors in their hiding spot across the lake — like the screams of cats and the growls of jaguars.

Now Heine compares the Aztec human sacrifice with the Christian sacrament of the Lord’s supper, the Eucharist:

Und des Vitzliputzli-Tempels
Helle Plattform ist die Bühne,
Wo zur Siegesfeier jetzt
Ein Mysterium tragiert wird.

»Menschenopfer« heißt das Stück.
Uralt ist der Stoff, die Fabel;
In der christlichen Behandlung
Ist das Schauspiel nicht so gräßlich.

Denn dem Blute wurde Rotwein,
Und dem Leichnam, welcher vorkam,
Wurde eine harmlos dünne
Mehlbreispeis’ transsubstituieret —

Diesmal aber, bei den Wilden,
War der Spaß sehr roh und ernsthaft
Aufgefaßt: man speiste Fleisch,
Und das Blut war Menschenblut.

Diesmal war es gar das Vollblut
Von Altchristen, das sich nie,
Nie vermischt hat mit dem Blute
Der Moresken und der Juden.

Freu dich, Vitzliputzli, freu dich,
Heute gibt es Spanierblut,
Und am warmen Dufte wirst du
Gierig laben deine Nase.

Heute werden dir geschlachtet
Achtzig Spanier, stolze Braten
Für die Tafel deiner Priester,
Die sich an dem Fleisch erquicken.

Denn der Priester ist ein Mensch,
Und der Mensch, der arme Fresser,
Kann nicht bloß vom Riechen leben
Und vom Dufte, wie die Götter.

The Vitzliputzli Tempel’s
altar is now the bright stage
for the vic’try celebration,
played as a tragic Mystery.

“Human Sacrifice” is its name.
Its source an ancient fable;
but in the Christian version
it’s less abominable.

For the blood became red wine,
the resurrected body,
became a harmless wafer,
both transubstantiated —

But here, among wild natives,
the frenzy was raw and real:
they feasted on human flesh
and the blood was human blood.

This time it is the pure blood
of Old Christian families,
never before mixed with blood
of Moor, Jew, or Marrano.

Rejoice now Vitzliputzli!
Today you shall have Spain’s blood,
and that warm bloody fragrance
shall refresh your greedy nose.

Today witness the slaughter
of 80 proud Spanish men
to be roasted for your priests
who will feast on Spanish flesh.

For your priests are merely men;
and man, the hungry creature,
cannot live by smell alone
or sweet fragrance like the gods.

Part II goes on to describe the torture of the men and their fate as human sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli.

In Part III, the bloodbath has died down and the priests and people alike have fallen into a stupor of bloodlust and drunkenness. The red priest awakes and enters into a twisted dialogue with Vitzliputzli, begging for his favor and contemplating the Spaniards’ Eucharist:

»Anfangs glaubten wir, sie wären
Wesen von der höchsten Gattung,
Sonnensöhne, die unsterblich
Und bewehrt mit Blitz und Donner.

Aber Menschen sind sie, tötbar
Wie wir andre, und mein Messer
Hat erprobet heute nacht
Ihre Menschensterblichkeit.

[…]

Auch moralisch häßlich sind sie,
Wissen nichts von Pietät,
Und es heißt, daß sie sogar
Ihre eignen Götter fräßen!

O vertilge diese ruchlos
Böse Brut, die Götterfresser —
Vitzliputzli, Putzlivitzli,
Laß uns siegen, Vitzliputzli!« —

“At first we thought they must be
creatures of the highest kind:
immortal sons of the sun
protected by thund’rous storm.

But they are only mortal
like ourselves, and with my knife
this night I have surely prov’d
their common mortality.

[…]

And they are moral ingrates
with no sense of piety.
We have even heard it said
that they feast upon their gods!

Oh destroy this heinous tribe,
evil brutes who eat their gods —
Vitzliputzli, Putzlivitzli,
Give us vic’try, Vitzliputzli!”

The poem ends with a chilling speech by Huitzilopochtli prophesying the downfall of the Aztecs at the hands of the Spaniards, who come protected by the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. In what appears to be an allusion to the horrible abuses of the Inquisition and religious wars about to unfold across Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Huitzilopochtli vows to leave Mexico in ashes and flee to Europe where he can continue his bloody work as his enemies’ God’s enemy:

Nach der Heimat meiner Feinde,
Die Europa ist geheißen,
Will ich flüchten, dort beginn ich
Eine neue Karriere.

Ich verteufle mich, der Gott
Wird jetzund ein Gottseibeiuns;
Als der Feinde böser Feind,
Kann ich dorten wirken, schaffen.

Quälen will ich dort die Feinde,
Mit Phantomen sie erschrecken —
Vorgeschmack der Hölle, Schwefel
Sollen sie beständig riechen.

Ihre Weisen, ihre Narren
Will ich ködern und verlocken;
Ihre Tugend will ich kitzeln,
Bis sie lacht wie ein Metze.

Ja, ein Teufel will ich werden,
Und als Kameraden grüß ich
Satanas und Belial,
Astaroth und Beelzebub.

Dich zumal begrüß ich, Lilis,
Sündenmutter, glatte Schlange!
Lehr mich deine Grausamkeiten
Und die schöne Kunst der Lüge!

To my enemies’ homeland —
to Europe’s many nations —
I now flee, where I’ll begin
a very similar career

I’ll become a devil fierce,
from god to “God be with us”;
my enemy’s enemy,
I’ll have so very much to do.

I will torment there my foe,
frighten them with phantasms —
give a little taste of hell;
ever brimstone will they smell.

I will lure and surely tempt
all their wise and foolish men;
I will tickle their virtue
so it laughs just like a whore

Yes, a devil I will be,
and will greet as evil peers
their Satan and Belial,
Astaroth and Beelzebub.

Even Lilith greet I too,
Mother of Sin, hissing snake!
Teach me your depravities
and the sweet art of your lies!

The poem has other fascinating characteristics in lengthy sections not quoted here. I was also going to link the human sacrifice scene from Apocalypto but ultimately decided not to based on its graphic and very disturbing nature — but I will highly recommend the film for any interested. I was very impressed with the depiction of the decadence and decay encumbering that civilization on the cusp of the Spaniards’ arrival, with human sacrifice as the most obvious symptom. Watching Apocalypto gave me an entirely new understanding of the level of the depravity and the extent of evil and societal downfall depicted in The Book of Mormon — it is a glimpse of the true, severe evil that was at issue (based on descriptions in the Book of Mormon text) in stark comparison to what we face now and call evil.

It also bears noting that Heine is by far not the first skeptic to scrutinize the unusual concept of transubstantiation. Of course, Jesus’ disciples themselves or those who were initially impressed with the miracle of the loaves and fishes and desired to follow him were immediately turned off by the concept:

“The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:41).
“The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52).
“Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60)
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66).

A great deal of the philosophical and theological work of the Catholic Church over the millennia has been devoted to contemplations of the Eucharist and transubstantiation. It is their holiest, most sacred sacrament. And, of course, criticism of it as an absurd and heretical notion goes as far back as Wycliffe in the 1300s and possibly earlier. The understanding of the Eucharist as either containing the literally present flesh and blood of Christ or only representing those symbolically was a central pillar of most reformers’ disagreements with the Catholic Church. It was a key reason that heretics were burned at the stake in “Lollard pits” from Wycliffe’s day on — because denying transubstantiation and viewing the bread and wine as merely symbolic representations of Christ’s body was considered the severest of blasphemies. Tyndale provoked the ire of Sir Thomas More and others by mocking the concept of transubstantiation while at the same time earnestly laying out a reformed representational theology of the Eucharist. And, of course, there is no shortage of Enlightenment-period and post-modern puzzlement, interrogation, and also ridicule or mockery of the idea of transubstantiation from the eighteenth century to the present day.

The Catholic posture toward the Eucharist, interpreted through the concept of transubstantiation, is very touching in its sincerity and foundational importance. I also very deeply empathize with the Protestant posture on the theological issue. Ronan, I thought, was able to bring the two together quite fittingly.

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    Erudite and fascinating! Thanks, John.

  2. I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

    Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

    That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

    Flannery O’ Connor

  3. What Flannery O’Connor said.

  4. Vajra2:

    Indeed. I was somewhat amused at the articles and their attempt to bridge the gap between the Catholic position of the Real Presence and the Zwingli view of the Eucharist of a symbol. I am not interested in bridging the gap between the two positions because it invariably leads to a watering down of the doctrine of the Real Presence. Without the Real Presence, I would probably not bother with religion.

    I understand that others do not feel that way and that is fine. However, I am not interested in watering down the teaching of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

  5. It seems to me that perhaps one of the biggest obstacles in reconciliation between these two views is that both sides seem to view a “spiritual presence” as somehow less “real” than a physical presence. Thus, the reformers tend to reduce it to nothing more than a symbol, and not a real presence, while the Catholic position is that to be a real presence, it must be physical. I wonder if Mormonism, with its insistence that all spirit is matter, only more refined, is uniquely positioned to find a middle ground between the two. It seems to me that we need to question the assumption that a spiritual presence is less “real” than a physical presence. That is, I think we need to insist that a spiritual presence does not mean a metaphorical presence, nor does it mean that God is merely present in the same way that his influence fills the immensity of space. I mean that we should be open to the possibility that the Spirit of God, and not just it’s influence, is actually, really present in the Eucharist. And, as I’ve suggested before, if the Spirit of Christ is really present in the Eucharist, then that arguably makes the Eucharist his body, regardless of whether the elements of bread and wine (or water) have been physically changed or not, because any tabernacle where his Spirit is housed (whether we are talking about the bread, or whether we are talking about the church) can arguably be called his body–and that in a real, not metaphorical sense.

    I’m not saying that this way of seeing it would satisfy both the Catholics and the reformers, or even that it would satisfy either. But I think it’s worth considering because it potentially helps us as Mormons, who generally associate ourselves with the reform position without taking too much thought about it, to understand and appreciate the beauty and majesty of the doctrine of the real presence. And it may give us a way to affirm that doctrine, even if we understand how it works differently than other do. That is, even if we can’t agree on how it works, I think it is valuable to find areas of common ground that we can agree on.

  6. The Catholic concept of literal, physical transubstantiation just seems…gross. Eating little pieces of one’s God? Ick. Plus it seems silly to think that Jesus was speaking literally when he said “this is my body” and “this is my blood”–Jesus spoke in metaphors all the darn time, why would he start being literal about anthrophagy? (or deity-phagy, I suppose.)

    Not to rule out a spiritual transubstantiation of some sort, but literal transubstantiation is one of those Catholic “innovations” better left in the Middle Ages.

  7. JKC, I really appreciate that comment — I think you’re onto something with this line of thought, and I agree. A bridge really does exist in this analysis.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    JKC, I think one has to keep in mind that the LDS conception of the sacrament based upon Moroni (and likely developed out of the symbolism of some of King Benjamin’s addresses) is quite different than what developed in Palestine and then in western Christianity. It’s interesting comparing the fairly early text the Didiche with the Book of Mormon for instance.

    So we should keep in mind that while there’s something similar between the two there’s also some profound differences. The LDS conception isn’t just symbolic, but the non-symbolic seems tied to the presence of the spirit as a testimony and witness. That is, in LDS terms, physical in some sense.

    For a variety of reasons the non-Protestant conception just makes little sense for Mormons. Primarily due to not embracing the metaphysics of platonism that was popular around the time of Augustine nor the hybrid with Aristotilean philosophy that developed with Aquinas and the scholastics. Without that conception of what is real and what constitutes an object then there’s a radically different way of thinking presence.

    I do think we can think through things in a middle ground. But that’s because we don’t need to embrace either side of the platonism vs. nominalism debate that’s reflected in Catholic vs. Protestant conceptions of the sacrament. We don’t have to say it’s merely an interpreted symbol like the nominalists (as taken up by Protestants). Yet we also don’t have to embrace a platonic conception of what constitutes Christ’s body and blood such that some platonic form is literally in the sacrament. It can be more than symbol without being platonic.

  9. It is a misconception to say that Protestants claim that the Eucharist is purely symbolic. Protestant views on the Eucharist fall on a broad spectrum–Lutherans, for example, are practically transubstantiationists (believing that the Eucharist is literally but not necessarily physically the body of Christ–I don’t really understand that one myself), original Calvinists believe that Jesus is present in Spirit at the Eucharist, but not necessarily tied to the physical objects, and some Baptists do believe it is purely a symbol.

    Trying to position Mormon thought on communion between some sort of Catholic / Protestant duality is a major over-simplification. Rather, Mormons are probably between the Lutherans and the Calvinists.

  10. Right, that is a very valuable addition to the discussion, Nepos.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    That’s a good point Nepos. It wasn’t an absolute thing. Not all Protestants are nominalists.

  12. Clark, you are obviously more educated than I am about platonism and all that, but I think your comment is a good one, and I suspect is along the same lines as what I am suggesting. The basic point is that we don’t need to accept either the catholics’ or the reformers’ assumptions about what constitutes “reality” or what constitutes “presence.” I’m certainly not saying that we need to embrace the Catholic position or it’s philosophical underpinnings. I’m just saying that while we don’t accept it, I also think we should not accept the extreme reform position that it is all nothing but metaphor. (Personally, I tend to skew toward Luther’s position, which was certainly a reform position, but was also probably on the more conservative end of the reformers on this issue.)

    I’m a bit puzzled by your statement that the prayers for the bread and wine in Moroni likely developed out of King Benjamin’s address. I’ve always seen them as pretty much directly developed from 3 Ne. 18 (vv. 1-11). I’m not saying I disagree with you, just that you’ve given me something to think about that I hadn’t considered before.

    It is interesting that when Jesus institute the sacrament in the Book of Mormon (chapter 18), he speaks of it initially only as in remembrance. It is when he condemns taking it unworthily that he speaks of it as “my flesh and blood.” And then he does it again when he miraculously provides bread and wine (chapter 20) and tells them “he that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul,” and the same thing about the wine.

  13. “I’m a bit puzzled by your statement that the prayers for the bread and wine in Moroni likely developed out of King Benjamin’s address. I’ve always seen them as pretty much directly developed from 3 Ne. 18 (vv. 1-11).”

    I agree with this as well.

  14. Totally agree, Nepos. In my comment above, I used “reformers” as shorthand for the more extreme reform position. But there are a range of beliefs.

    (By the way, I actually like the Lutheran position. I get that it seems contradictory, but I admire the way it resists the tendency of some of the reformers to de-literalize the gritty physical aspects of Christianity. I also like it because by saying that Christ is really and literally present in the Eucharist, but not necessarily physically present, the implication is that a spiritual presence is as real and as literal as a physical presence, and not just metaphorical, which I like.)

  15. And BTW, my comment above is also an oversimplification of the Lutheran position on consubstantiality.

  16. I mean, consubstantiation. Not the same thing.

  17. A comment by Pope Francis on the real presence in the Eucharist caught my eye this morning:

    “With this gesture and with these words, he gives bread a function that is no longer simply physical nourishment, but that which makes present his Person amid the community of believers.”

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/the-eucharist-teaches-us-to-care-for-the-weakest-of-society-pope-francis-says-29943/

    This is, of course, entirely consistent with Pope Benedict XVI’s longer musings on the real presence in the Eucharist in the first volume of his three volume Jesus biography.

  18. JKC–it’s difficult not to oversimplify the Lutheran position, because it is enormously complex–even most Lutherans don’t understand it. (My Mom, a Lutheran descended from the earliest Swiss German Lutherans, thought the Lutherans believed in transubstantiation.)

    If I understand it correctly (and I don’t), formal Lutheran doctrine is that the bread and wine don’t “turn into” the body and blood of Christ, but rather, always were (and are) the body and blood, in a metaphysical / quasi-physical sense–almost as if by declaring the Sacrament the bread and wine merge or tap into an ever-existing Presence. It’s enough to give a person a headache.

    I would’ve thought that Mormons were closer to the “symbolic” interpretation of communion, mostly because the Temple, in theory, represents a much more intense encounter with the Spirit than communion. Certainly Mormon communion is much less formalized (High Church) than that practiced in the denominations that lean towards a “literal” interpretation of communion (Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, etc.) I could be wrong, though.

  19. The Catholic concept of literal, physical transubstantiation just seems…gross. Eating little pieces of one’s God? Ick.

    That’s a misunderstanding of transubstantiation. Catholics believe that even the smallest particle of the Host and even the smallest drop of the Precious Blood contains the entire Christ. This is why it is perfectly acceptable from a Catholic stand point to only receive communion from the Host (or if the person has celiac disease, to receive communion in the form of the Precious Blood.) It’s not possible to eat little pieces of Christ, its an all or nothing deal.