The Way of Sacrifice and the Light Within

By Richard Hodges

© 2015


We read the following concerning the practice of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica, and Quetzalcoatl, who according to tradition tried to put an end to this practice:

The [voluntary] sacrifice of the youth [whose heart was cut out after a year of being treated as a king] was linked with a profound philosophical idea that only the true, the deified, heart is worthy to become nourishment for the great star [the Sun] that maintains life on earth. The Nahua [Aztec] peoples believed that we are born with a physical heart and face, but that we have to create a deified heart and a true face. The ordinary word for heart was yollotl, a word derived from ollin, movement. Thus the ordinary human heart is the moving, pumping organ that keeps us alive; but the heart that can be made by special efforts in life is called Yolteotl, or deified [heart]. The phrase used to describe the face that we must make if we are to be truly men is ixtli in yollotl, which signifies a process whereby heart and face must combine. The heart must shine through the face before our features become reliable reflections of ourselves.

Thus heart-making and face-making, the growth of spiritual strength, were two aspects of a single process which was the aim of life and which consisted in creating some firm and enduring centre from which it would be possible to operate as human beings . . . If we are unable to create this second heart and face, we are merely vagrants on the face of the earth. The idea of vagrancy is expressed in the word ahuicpa, which means literally 'to carry something untowardly.' Without this enduring centre, as the Nahua poet tells us:

...You give your heart to each thing in turn.

Carrying you do not carry it.

You destroy your heart on the earth.

Are you not always pursuing things idly?


But of course this idea of feeding the sun with a symbolic heart, created within a man's psyche, was very soon distorted. Offerings to the gods made in flowers picked from the meadows and the cornfields became offerings of enemy hearts torn out. . .The whole gory process is a long way from the Nahua ideal of creating the heart Yolteotl, or of the Maya idea . . .described by Domingo Martinez Paradez: ‘ . . .So in Maya anthropogeny there exists the concept not only that consciousness is given to man, but also that it must be formed, and it is the god's task to do this.’

This is the central idea and purpose of the Quetzalcoatl or plumed serpent myth, for Nanautzin is one manifestation of Quetzalcoatl. He is the plumed serpent in his lowliest state, but his self-sacrifice saves the universe from extinction and opens up latent possibilities not only for the heavenly bodies but also for man.

We note here the similarity with the idea of Gurdjieff that man is not born with a soul, that a soul must be made, by what he calls “conscious labors and intentional suffering.”

A possible connection with Quetzalcoatl is the story in Beelzebub’s Tales [chapter XXIV, fifth descent]. At a “learned conference” in Babylon the surpassingly learned 'Hamolinadir', gives a sorrowful speech about the “instability of human reason,” its susceptibility to being convinced of anything. He bases this on his experience of being “convinced” by contradictory arguments about the burning question of the day, the existence of the Soul. He compares this ongoing discussion to the building of a great tower in Babylon, doomed to collapse. After his speech he is said to have departed forever to go “Nineveh” to raise “maize”. Now “maize” is Zea Mays, what we call corn; in the 5th century BC the only place in the world where maize was raised was the Americas. I would suggest that the hidden meaning of the story is that Hamolinadir sailed to Mexico and became Quetzalcoatl, promethean bringer of all arts, crafts, and sciences in Mexican myth, initiator of the cultivation of maize, and avatar for the development of high religious culture. The date is arguably consistent with the earliest foundations of the pyramids at Teotihuacan, whose most ancient and holy place is a temple to Quetzalcoatl.

As to “Nineveh,” it is interesting that Nineveh first appears in history around 1800 B.C.E. as a center of the worship of Ishtar. In the story of Ishtar, she enters the underworld and is permitted to return, but is required to go back to the underworld for half of each year. Her story is a prototype for a number of myths, including the stories of Orpheus/Eurydice, and of Quetzalcoatl. Like Quetzalcoatl, she was identified with the planet Venus. Is it possible that “Nineveh” and “maize” was a code pointing to the New World?

Beelzebub need not always be taken literally; the story of Hamolinadir may just as well be allegory; and so may this idea of a pre-Columbian contact be a metaphor for a process that takes place across a divide in the collective unconscious rather than across the Atlantic Ocean.

When I proposed this theory once to Pentland, main teacher of the Gurdjieff community in the United States, he reminded me that Hamolinadir had taken a vow never to build pyramids again. My reply was that evidently when he got there, he found he couldn't keep his vow. Pentland seemed to like that. The point is that the story of Quetzalcoatl is precisely the story of a man who couldn't keep his vow. Quetzalcoatl's vow is reminiscent of many old-world teachings of the era such as that of Pythagoras: it includes not taking life, hence vegetarianism and not sacrificing animals; non-intoxication; refraining from sex for pleasure. Note that, similar to Beelzebub, one of Quetzalcoatl’s missions was to eliminate the practice of animal sacrifice. In this it seems he largely failed; animal and human sacrifice continued to play a central role in much of Mesoamerican religion.

Probably Beelzebub’s Tales is referring to the period of the “Axial sages”, perhaps around 500 B.C.E., in the “learned conference in Babylon” at which Hamolinadir gave his speech).The Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec cultures from which come most of our knowledge of Mesoamerican ideas were much later than this period. But as Greek and Zoroastrian thought of that era underlie the later thought of Christian and Muslim culture, so the Quetzoalcoatl story which originated much earlier underlies all the later rich development of Mesoamerican culture and religion. Even today Quetzalcoatl is of all the gods the one closest to the hearts of the many people in Mesoamerica who still follow the old traditions.

Quetzalcoatl was said to have visited the underworld and gathered the bones of human beings, who had all been destroyed in the collapse of the fourth world cycle, and brought them back to life to start the fifth cycle. In one version of the myth, Quetzalcoatl succumbs to seduction by the powerful god Tezcatlipoca, in the manifestation of a human witch. Later he repented of his sin, and out of remorse threw himself upon a funeral pyre. But the purity of his heart was such that it was lifted to heaven and became the planet Venus, which spends half its season in the heavens where it is the brightest point of light, and half in the underworld, where it is unseen, occult. One of the epithets of Quetzoalcoatl/Venus is “Master Light”; his apotheosized heart is metaphysically the source of all that illumines. The eternal struggle between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, patron of human sacrifice, drunkenness, sexual excess and so on, is a myth of the duality of light and darkness.

This story begs comparison with several Greek myths, notably that of Persephone, who was abducted to the underworld and then rescued by her father Zeus; but because Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds she was forced by a law of the Fates to live half each year in the underworld, half in the upper world. Also there is the story of Orpheus, who went into the underworld to retrieve his dead lover Eurydice; but on returning from there Orpheus was unable to resist looking back at his lover, defying Hades’ command, she was lost to him forever. Like Quetzalcoatl, Orpheus was also patron of the arts, especially music. All this would be well-known to any learned man (such as Hamolinadir) of the axial era, 600-300 B.C.E., in which the cult of Orpheus was in its heyday.

Here is another extract that hints at a further connection, or at least a resonance, between Mesoamerican thought and early Greek. Note the unspoken presence of the shade of Orpheus.


The Aristotles of the Aztec were men called tlamatinime, (singular: tlamantini), or “knowers-of-things”. These men sought truth solidly established and rooted in the fundamental nature of things and determined the only things in life that are real, the only things that are “rooted”, are “flower and song”. In the search for truth, in seeking that which is basic and fundamental to all of life, they determined it is ART that is true and eternal, the only thing of real value. Therefore, it was ART alone that protected them and empowered them. (I capitalize art here to emphasize its importance.)

Art is everlasting; said the tlamatinime, and even if the tangible embodiment of art should fade, its essence will, like the gods to whom it is dedicated, will last forever. Flower and Song is the expression used by the Aztec, Flower-and-Song being a compound one word as Bread and Butter. The flower-and-Song will perish, but not its essence, like the gods they serve. One codex described the tlamatinime as follows:

He is the way, the true guide of others ...

He teaches the world ...

He holds a mirror before others,

He makes them mindful and judicious ...

He shines his light on the world

He inquires into the region of the gods above,

and into the region of the dead below ...

        (Codice Matritense fol. 118rx)

The tlamatinime engaged in speculative thought like Western philosophers, seeking to illuminate the major metaphysical questions of life by examining traditional beliefs, correcting and extending them when possible. Aztec wisemen realized that all earthy things are transient and by their nature doomed for destruction.

Hence, I weep,

for you are weary,

Oh God.

Jade shatters,

the quetzal feather tears apart.

Oh God, you mock us.

Perhaps we really do not exist,

Perchance we are nothing to you?

        (Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 12v)

So then the wisemen of the Aztec asked, if life is transitory, or only a dream, how should one live out one's days? One answer was to live life to the fullest during the brief time that remains, but this was disputed by the view that neltiliztli (truth) was solidly established and rooted in the fundamental nature of things, only things in life that are real and rooted are Flower and Song. The concept conveyed by flower and song is art in the broadest sense of the word, including poetry, symbol, metaphor and all that has meaningful beauty.

Finally, my heart understands it: I hear a song,

I see a flower.

Behold, they will not wither!

        (Ms. Romances de los senores de la Nueve Espana fol. l9v)


They will not end, my flowers,

they will not cease, my songs ...

Even when the flowers wither and grow yellow,

they will be carried thither,

to the interior of the house

of the bird with the golden plumes ...

        (fol 13v)

As you see then, art to the Aztec was everlasting, and even if the tangible embodiment of art fades, its essence will last forever, just like God or the gods. Aztec aesthetics, then, is founded on a belief that:

l. true art comes from the gods and


2. it is manifest in the artist's mystical revelation of sacred truth.


3. Through such revelation the artist transcends mortality and the transient world of the senses and becomes a part of the eternal.


The artists were special people and had to be born on a particular day to hold meditative spiritual qualities. The gods spoke through the artist, thereby connecting him with the divine. All art comes from the gods. As one codex reads:

“The true artist determines matters in his heart and meets things with his mind.”

        (Codice Matritense de la Real Academia)




“the good painter is wise, he has God in his heart.”


Only people who learned to converse with their own hearts had any hope of bringing genuine flower and song into the world.


Another reason for interest in this material is the connection with Carlos Castaneda. Certainly Castaneda, who read widely, would have known the Greek material, had read Beelzebub and Fragments (this is evident in many borrowings of words and ideas that he reworks for his purposes; and Castaneda is known to have corresponded with Pentland), and he would have known the Mesoamerican traditions possibly from oral as well as literary sources. His theme of the sorcerer who burns up with The Fire From Within (the title of one of his later books) and leaves the earthly plane to disappear into “infinity” was a central part of what he presented in the group work of Castaneda’s last years. It was taken by some to imply a kind of voluntary suicide, which may have actually happened in the still unsolved disappearance of his three closest disciples [see the later chapters of Sorcerer's Apprentice by Amy Wallace]. Certainly however the inner meaning of such an idea must be closer to what Gurdjieff described, as quoted by Ouspensky: “dying” to oneself, after “awakening”, in order then to be “born”.

How do we understand then this idea of a light being kindled by sacrifice, so clear in the Quetzoalcoatl/Venus story, and found in various forms in other traditions including Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, such as in the following from John 1:

[4] In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

[5] And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

[6] There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

[7] The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light,...


Do these stories of sacrifice, set on a cosmic plane, refer more practically to an inner truth? What is the practice of inner sacrifice that kindles the light? Is not some such process undertaken every time we “work”: when we sit in meditation, when we “work with others” as in the Gurdjieff teaching, when we worship in a shrine, when we dance or  chant in ritual, and so on, where the conditions of such work always require from us a giving up of many habits that we are ordinarily identified with? Whether this takes place mechanically, the sacrifice as it were being forced from us by the conditions, or more rarely is voluntary, a gesture made from understanding and intent, the result after a certain passage that takes place in darkness is the appearance of a presence that illuminates the unknown insides of our body feelings and mind.

Certain drugs also are known that can induce a state of inner illumination. Both Gurdjieff and Castaneda describe how in a “school” a drug may be used to give a foretaste, a preview of something that can be obtained later in a more integral and permanent form by means of work for being. LSD especially in the last two or three generations has drawn many people to Castaneda, Gurdjieff, and other esoteric teachings. It has the capacity to radically disconnect the conscious mind from its ordinary relationship to space, time, logic, and identity. However the wish to Be can remain intact, and the person, may after a struggle relinquish his ordinary largely false sense of self and this wish may forge a new temporary stability on a foundation of pure consciousness. Or the wish may fail leading to disintegration and unspeakable anguish. Usually a person is unprepared for either kind of experience and it leads to nothing important, or sometimes to great harm; but in a “school” that uses such means there will be both preparation and a context for using the experience afterward.

This is the secret meaning of “working in the dark”: work always begins by going into the dark; as in a well-known Mullah Nasr Eddin story, the place to search for something lost is not where one can already see, but where one cannot. Much the same is said in the great Taoist text Secret of the Golden Flower [Thomas Cleary trans.], for example:

the pupil understands how to distill the dark anima so that it transforms itself into Light.


What happens next is crucial. The person who experiences this light usually has an irresistible tendency to align the experience with symbols that he is familiar with, or to create new images of it. This is probably both the source of all the religious and philosophical ideas and institutions that have come down to us, and the everlasting spring from which they are constantly renewed among people. However, no symbol can contain the energy of such an experience; a symbol, verbal formulation, or religious image is, to use a Zen expression, merely a “finger pointing at the moon”, not the moon itself. To worship a symbol itself rather than the light it represents is to worship an idol. The person is in danger of being robbed by his own hand of the energy of the experience itself and the alchemical effect it might have for his own being. This is hinted at in different ways in the traditions; it is the deep reason behind the idea of esoteric secrecy: secrecy is something a person owes himself in respect of his highest experiences. He even must keep certain secrets from “himself”, from the part of himself that would debase true gold to the cheaper currency of mental and emotional fascination. In a similar same vein Pentland had a favorite toast: “To our highest experiences, may we forget them”.

In the ideas of Gurdjieff we are told that man creates a certain substance which can go for the growth of a higher body but is ordinarily “eaten” by “the moon”. Castaneda has a similar idea, a metacosmic “Eagle” that “eats” the energy of perception. This idea appeared first in Tales of Power, which contains several ideas similar to Gurdjieff and was written in a period when he was in correspondence with Pentland. In both systems, this “eating” is said to take place at a person’s death; however we may be entitled to regard “death” as including the subsiding of a state of inner presence and light as the person returns to an ordinary state. Can we regard these images as an indication of the fact that the energy of “higher experiences”, of which everyone way receives a quota in a natural way, and which some people pursue more of, almost always is spent on something outside, and the person himself retains only a disturbing memory? Both systems offer a possibility of this energy not being eaten: Castaneda speaks of a tiny chance by which an “impeccable” sorcerer can evade the Eagle. Gurdjieff says that it is possible to develop “moon within” to which the substance can be sent that is normally taken by the moon.

Jacob Needleman recounts a Hassidic story in which a Rabbi was listening to another Rabbi reading a sacred text. In this text it is said that a certain truth should be “placed upon the heart”. The first Rabbi asks, “Why does it not say to place truth in the heart”? The other Rabbi answers “It is not in man’s power to place something in his heart, only God can do that. But if the truth is placed on the heart, then when the heart breaks, it can fall in.” Can the heart be broken by suffering to witness one’s own willful talking about the highest truth, inner as well as outer talking? That is indeed taking God’s name in vain, breaking the esoteric rule given in Judaism of never “pronouncing” the name of God.

Is it enough just to recognize and suffer this process of loss of energy by identification? Can this suffering help us not to give away our inner experiences? This may represent one meaning of Gurdjieff’s “remorse of conscience”. As I write in a poem:


Be Still and Know


I am the presence in the silence,

I am the light behind the mind,

Under the body, source of being,

I am the core and you the rind.


Still, in reflected light you see me,

Feel me in love that warms the heart.

Yet, with a chill, you always miss me--

Know I am One, and you a part.


We must leave open the way of art. As anyone can hardly help being aware, there is much opportunity for self-deception and false pride in making art; that is one of the enemies that a would-be artist must struggle with. Gurdjieff gives us the idea of “objective art” which is contrasted with the “subjective art”. It would be hard not to recognize the subjective nature of almost every production that we encounter in today’s culture, and in past cultures and eras too, how everything feeds what Beelzebub called “unbecoming properties” of people and of the artist himself: vanity, greed, lust, violent attachment to ethnic and religious identities, and so on. Is there indeed anything that is not tarred by this brush? Can we say that for example the music of Bach is “objective”? Or the music of Gurdjieff? Certainly they are much less subjective in this way than almost all of the music we know, not excluding what is usually called religious music. What can we find that is objective, or at least less subjective, in ritual; in architecture; in painting; in dance; in sculpture; in theater; in music; to enumerate the seven categories listed in the chapter called “Art” in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson? Or in literature and scripture? But the purpose of Beelzebub is certainly not to found a new branch of art criticism however elevated its principles. It is rather I think to offer us a new vision of what art as a whole is and should be in the life of people.

It may indeed be a voluntary sacrifice of an inner experience to create an external work as a vehicle for its energy, even at the accepted risk of losing some of its energy for oneself. If I may be so bold as to offer an interpretation of one of the most “sacred” ideas of Gurdjieff, this may be one meaning of “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. In this way, something fine may be able to be shared among others. It is probably true that higher experiences are not given only for the benefit of the individual who experiences them, but for the whole community of which he is a part, even for all humanity. It may even be that what one can hope for that is called in different traditions a “higher body” or “individual immortality” consists in something that lives in the communal psyche, something whose blood is of the nature of art. Surely this is one of the reasons for undertaking the often thankless task of creating what we are calling “art,” in the wide sense that includes all sorts of external productions whether or not they have a physically enduring form and whether or not they are recognized as anything special.

For guidance in how to engage in art as a path, we could well look again to Orpheus. Orpheus may or may not have existed as a person; scholarship is divided, and Beelzebub makes a point of saying that no such person existed. A similar question exists in respect to Quetzalcoatl: was he a man who was elevated to heaven through his conscious labors and intentional suffering, or a Divine principle that incarnated as a man? If Guthrie, in his superb study Orpheus and Greek Religion, is correct in his view that Orpheus represented a reforming tendency in early Greek religion, and brought together and intermediated between the abandoned orgiastic worship of Dionysos and the restrained elevated intellectuality of Apollo, in whose name the Delphic Oracle dispensed prophecy as well as law, this may point us in the right direction. Surely both abandon and order are required for art to appear, together they form the vessel in which artistic creation is fermented. The Orphic impulse was realized most potently in the schools of the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Parmenides and Empedocles, and especially the school of Pythagoras, all of whose rules for thinking and for engaging in life must have formed the walls of the furnace in which burned their extraordinary creative activity whose energy is still not exhausted and which forms much of the spiritual infrastructure of Western civilization.

We have seen how the idea of sacrifice and redemption is found in a number of traditions of what is called the Axial Era, 600-300 B.C.E., a period of extraordinary outpouring of teachings and scriptures. It is this period in which Beelzebub's “learned conference” is set, and Gurdjieff's trope may be simply a reference to this whole period rather than an account of an actual gathering of wise men in Babylon. We have proposed including Quetzoalcoatl among the flowers upon this tree, which also include: Buddhism; early Greek religion and literature and later the philosophers, all of which breathe the atmosphere of the Orpheus story; Taoism; Confucius; Zoroastrianism; the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Upanishads and Gita of Hindu tradition; the Hebrew prophets (whose sacrifice and redemption theme is supposed to have been fulfilled in a very high form in Christianity); and a variety of mystery schools of the Mediterranean and Middle East known only from fragments and hints.

Much has been made of this material but it is common these days to consider it all as Religion, Philosophy, or Myth. Especially in these post-modern times, when all these categories are latently suspect, and only lip service is often paid to really engaging with them, this tends to cast into concrete what was once a living fire, a “fire from within”. This distances us as individuals from ideas and principles that were originally meant to be “placed upon the heart”.

I have tried to bring the idea of sacrifice home, hopefully in the spirit of what Gurdjieff meant by saying that some traditions have “philosophy” (literally “love of wisdom”), some have “theory” (literally “contemplation”), but only the tradition from which he distilled a path has “practice”.


Quoted in The God-Kings and the Titans by James Bailey, originally from Irene Nicholson, Mexican and Central American Mythology

See Peter Kingsley, Reality

Zoroaster was one of the axial sages according to the traditional dating; but see a paper by Kingsley, “The Greek Source of the 6th-Century Dating of Zoroaster” where he concludes that Zoroaster probably lived at the end of the bronze age, around 1200.