We know some things about what happened in 1492.  A Southern European man led a few boats from Europe to the Americas, beginning the Columbian exchange.  That exchange ended isolation that had allowed cultures, ethnic groups, religions, animals, and plants, the opportunity to evolve without domination by a handful of cultures from Europe.  

I was reminded by this CNN article today, showing ruins of cities and their megallithic religious and civic  structures, predating Mr. Colon (Columbus) by centuries.  

I like learning about what developed in the Americas before the Columbian exchange, because those events and objects and cultures and structures and religions tell us how universal, and how diverse, human though processes can be.  Fully isolated from the Middle East and Abrahamic customs, the societies of the Americas were developed, complex, and had their own elaborate religious laws and traditions.  There were diverse societies, and they varied significantly.  Even so, themes are seen that, even though fully independent from both Western and Eastern religions, we can find parallels with those.  Those parallels make me think there is something universally "human" about religion, and about the themes that religions explore.

Aztecs were polytheistic.  Prayer was a central part of daily life.  It's not fully decided, but some historians claim the human sacrifices amounted to the thousands.  In the book 1491, I read that contrasts with a similar time in Europe, where an outside would view witch burnings and the tortures of the Catholic inquisition as human sacrifices, and demographically more were killed.  Much of what we know about the Aztec religion is patched together, attempting to recover social history from the Spanish and Catholic conquerors who, of course, wrote their own histories.  From the linked article, "The Aztec religion was closely intertwined with their sciences, such as astronomy and medicine. Agriculture and farming were also related to religion: since Aztec society was based on farming, the most important gods were the gods of rain, corn, and wind."


 In one Aztec religious resurrection story, "
Quetzalcoatl (whose story dates to around the first century) is tricked by Tezcatlipoca to over-drink and then burns himself to death out of remorse for his own shameful deeds.[2][20] Quetzalcoatl does not resurrect and come back to life as himself, but some versions of his story have a flock of birds flying away from his ashes, and in some variants, Quetzalcoatl sails away on the ocean never to return"  

As one might expect from the long,long history of the Quetzalcoatl legends, the stories change, and currently are filtered through  the fog of history.   As the morning star, he was known by the title Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, meaning "lord of the star of the dawn." He was known as the inventor of books and the calendar, the giver of maize (corn) to mankind, and sometimes as a symbol of death and resurrection. Quetzalcoatl was also the patron of the priests and the title of the twin Aztec high priests. Some legends describe him as opposed to human sacrifice[12] while others describe him practicing it.

The other major cultures, as far as I can tell, were Mayan, Inca, and the multiple North American civilizations.

I think Maya had significant overlap with Aztec - but will have to read on that.  I may be wrong.  According to this site "   The Maya worshipped a pantheon of nature gods, each of which had both a benevolent side and a malevolent side. The most important deity was the supreme god Itzamná, the creator god, the god of the fire and god of the hearth."   Dualism is also a theme of religions in the Middle East, East Asia, and Europe (no reference, my thoughts and memories)

The Inca had a vast empire, and there were several polytheistic religions.  

North American Indian religions are even more difficult to define.  The combination of no written record, even in stone; decimation of the vast majority of the population by disease, then invasion, and religious colonization, leave is with little reliable pre-Columbian exchange information.  By accounts, the religions were diverse, often animistic, and shaman based.

If I can keep it going, I'll add info about each of these cultures or groups of cultures.  I think it's much more complex, more is known, and much can be learned, compared to the popular beliefs about religions in the Americas before 1491, dating back a millenium or more.

Tags: 1491, Columbian exchange, Quetzalcoatl, aztec, comparative religion, dualism, resurrection, universality

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