During the early 16th century, the Spanish arrived in Mexico for the first time. One of the eventual goals of the Spanish was to enlighten the local populations with tales from the Catholic church. This goal, as it turns out, was not as cut-and-dry as they had hoped it would be. In fact, a strange miscommunication would occur between the two groups that would go almost unnoticed.
One of the most central parts of Mesoamerican religions, is the concept of a connection between the underworld, terrestrial world and heavens. This connection is today referred to as the Axis Mundi, meaning the “central point of the world”. In Mayan cultures, Axis Mundi is often represented by a tree, sometimes covered in vines. This tree reaches into the underworld with its roots, breaks through the terrestrial world and up into the sky with its branches.
The Catholic church holds the belief that Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on a wooden cross to pay for the sins of humanity. A crucial part of their belief was to share this savior with mankind. Part of this meant the display of a cross to cultures who had no reference for what it could represent. Specifically, a culture who had their own cross-shaped symbol. When the Spanish came and nailed a cross to a tree in the center of town, something odd happened. The Mayan people seemed to be completely at ease having a cross nailed to their tree. After all, that’s what the cross represented in their culture: a tree.
The miscommunication led the native people to bring their own idols into the churches that the Spanish built. It would not last however, as the church could not have pagan religion infiltrating their church. Many Mayans were killed by the Spanish because of their beliefs and attempts to build altars to their own gods. Some of the Mayan people gave in, but large bits of their religion seeped in to the new Catholic faith. Today, you can visit the old Catholic churches in central Mexico and see carved vines growing up the cross.