Back in 2014, Ben Leeming, of the Rivers history department, made a discovery worthy of a detective story, albeit one with a literary bent. The startling results of his research, and the story of how the project came to be, can be found in Aztec Antichrist, Leeming’s new book, recently published by the University Press of Colorado.
Leeming, now chair of the history department, is a student of Aztec culture and of Nahuatl, the language of both the Aztecs of the past and their modern-day descendants, the Nahua people. In 2014, he was preparing to write his dissertation for his PhD in anthropology. Part of that process involved visiting libraries and archives where materials written in Nahuatl might be found. “We know that different libraries have these materials,” he explained, “but because so few non-Native people are conversant in the language, the libraries often don’t really know what they have. In some cases, I’m able to tell them what they’ve got.”
Thus he found himself in the reading room of the Hispanic Society of America in Manhattan on a hot July morning in 2014. The item he’d requested from the Society’s archives was catalogued as Sermones ymiscelánia de devoción, or “Sermons and miscellany of devotion.” Despite its Spanish title, the manuscript was almost entirely in Nahuatl. As Leeming carefully leafed through the small volume, which dated to the mid 16th century, he began to notice some striking anomalies.
“Flipping through the pages, I saw, written in all-capital lettering, the names of six different Aztec gods,” said Leeming. “That was really startling, because you almost never see those deities mentioned by name in Christian writing. They were banished from the vocabulary.” Reading on, he started seeing terms like “merchant,” “old woman,” “prostitute,” “Antichrist”—and asides that seemed like stage directions. He suddenly realized that he was looking at two plays—plays that are among the oldest surviving examples of such writing by Indigenous people in an Indigenous language.
It was an exciting discovery and a fortuitous one, given that his thesis advisor is a prominent authority on colonial Nahuatl theater. “She was very excited,” said Leeming. “She was the ideal person to be studying under.”
Beyond the discovery itself, though, Leeming was thrilled by the light the works shed on the early encounters between Indigenous populations and Christian priests and missionaries. “What’s so fascinating is that the plays are Christian stories by an Indigenous writer in an Indigenous language. Though the stories are European in origin, they are transformed into something hybrid,” said Leeming.
The plots, rooted in European tradition, tell of an Aztec Antichrist who tries to convince Native Christians to return to the worship of their deities and the rituals they once performed. They reflect a melding of Christian and Indigenous forms of worship. Both religions had a tradition of elaborate ritual, even spectacle, which, says Leeming, would have made Roman Catholicism resonate with the Aztecs. “We don’t know what people believed, but we do know what they did. They embraced the more external aspects of Roman Catholicism. One of the theses of the book is that Native people accepted Christianity on their own terms, incorporating it into their existing practices; it was more of an additive process than a substitution.”
While plays like the ones Leeming uncovered may not have been part of the Indigenous practice, he says, “Elements of pre-contact religions were very theatrical. Native people enjoyed public spectacles. When those former rituals were banned and temples were torn down, the priests decided to put on plays to teach the essential doctrines and stories of Christianity. That was an instant hit, because it allowed people to continue to do what they loved to do: gathering for important religious occasions for elaborate performances.”
Once he had completed his doctoral thesis on the plays, Leeming thought that turning the material into a book would be a simple matter. Instead, it was a lengthy process, largely because he decided to pivot away from making it a strictly academic work. “A couple of readers suggested I reconsider the audience, and I got excited about sharing it with non-specialists,” says Leeming. “I spent a couple of summers rewriting, thinking about how to get a wider audience excited about a subject that might seem remote and irrelevant.”
The result, he believes, is a book that speaks to a broad range of readers. “It’s important for it to be accepted as a serious work of history and that it be a readable book for those outside of the field,” he says. “Some of it will satisfy the non-specialists, and some of it will satisfy the academics. Overall, I feel very good about it.”