Cults as Religious Foundation: An Object Oriented Practices Approach to Aztec-Catholic Contact


Categories for cross-temporal and cross-spatial comparative approaches to human religious and spiritual practices often fall short of clarifying the concepts. Cheryl Claassen and I have argued that the term cult, understood as a series of patterned actions that focus on an object, place, belief, or practice where humans communicate with the transcendent, best describes the practices found in early modern Spanish Catholic and pre-Columbian Aztec lifeways and approaches to the sacred (2022). However, the term cult is problematic in our century, often invoked to delegitimize groups that are outside of cultural comfort zones. Recognizing that concern, we argue that to compare cultic behaviors across historical, religious, and spiritual arenas we need more clarifying language. Following Ann Taves’ work on a building blocks approach to religion (Taves 2009), in this paper we propose considering 15-16th century Aztec and Iberian Catholic cultic expressions as Object Oriented Practices that had structural similarities offering fertile ground for the growth of what becomes Mexican Catholicism. Object Oriented Practices offers a lens to see objects - mountains, idols, bundles, relics - and practices such as pilgrimage, offerings, sacrifices - as human spiritual and religious behaviors across space and time without denigration or legitimation. We discuss the example of pilgrimage from a comparative lens, emphasizing the structural ways humans orient similar behaviors in differing contexts of the Aztecs and colonizing Catholics in sixteenth-century Spain and Mexico.


Laura Ammon
Associate Professor of Religion, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies , Appalachian State University , North Carolina, United States

Cheryl Claassen
Research Professor, Anthropology, Appalachian State University, North Carolina, United States


Presentation Type

Paper Presentation in a Themed Session


Religious Foundations


Aztec, Catholicism, Comparison, Contact, Cult, Idol, Landscape, Pilgrimage, Ritual, Sixteenth-Century

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