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.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, 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
There on his throne-altar sits
The blood-robed high priest reflects the bizarre and sinister god he serves:
Auf des Altars Marmorstufen
Upon the altar’s holy stair
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
»Menschenopfer« heißt das Stück.
Denn dem Blute wurde Rotwein,
Diesmal aber, bei den Wilden,
Diesmal war es gar das Vollblut
Freu dich, Vitzliputzli, freu dich,
Heute werden dir geschlachtet
Denn der Priester ist ein Mensch,
The Vitzliputzli Tempel’s
“Human Sacrifice” is its name.
For the blood became red wine,
But here, among wild natives,
This time it is the pure blood
Rejoice now Vitzliputzli!
Today witness the slaughter
For your priests are merely men;
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
Aber Menschen sind sie, tötbar
Auch moralisch häßlich sind sie,
O vertilge diese ruchlos
“At first we thought they must be
But they are only mortal
And they are moral ingrates
Oh destroy this heinous tribe,
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,
Ich verteufle mich, der Gott
Quälen will ich dort die Feinde,
Ihre Weisen, ihre Narren
Ja, ein Teufel will ich werden,
Dich zumal begrüß ich, Lilis,
To my enemies’ homeland —
I’ll become a devil fierce,
I will torment there my foe,
I will lure and surely tempt
Yes, a devil I will be,
Even Lilith greet I too,
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.