The Spiritual Ecology of Indian Mortality in New Spain, 1520–1620

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 11:10 AM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center)
Heather Peterson, University of South Carolina Aiken
Both the Spanish and Nahua understood the natural world as part of a larger metaphysical construct. They lived in closed systems where natural disasters and epidemics were understood in relation to bodily or spiritual transgressions of the metaphysical order.  In Europe, earthquakes and epidemics were seen as punishments from God, and Bartolomé de Las Casas argued that this cosmic relationship between morality and ecology extended the jurisdiction of the monarch to punish the non-Christian subjects living in their kingdoms for blasphemy and sodomy.  Both people practiced dietary and sexual limitations to stave off disaster.  Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Nahua raised their children with strict dietary controls, and macehuales (commoners) were forbidden both meat and alcohol except for feast days. Across New Spain Native People also prohibited early marriage, waiting until thirty or even forty years of age. Many of these prohibitions were undone by Spanish rule, which encouraged early marriages and lifted the restrictions against meat eating and drinking.   At the same time, new dietary restrictions, such as fasting during Lent, and sexual prohibitions against polygamy and were instituted, changing the most basic elements of people’s lives.  It is not surprising then, that both groups understood the three epidemics of the sixteenth century through this lens.  Each group saw the mortality as a result of trespass, an imbalance in the natural/metaphysical world.
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