Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 6

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
LETTER VI.


LETTER VI.


THE PYRAMID OF CHOLULA.

Three leagues westwardly from the city of Puebla lie the remains of the ancient Indian Pyramid of Cholula, and you reach them by a pleasant morning ride over the plain.

This is one of the most remarkable relics of the Aborigines on the Continent; for, although it was constructed only of the adobes, or common sun-dried bricks, it still remains in sufficient distinctness to strike every observer with wonder at the enterprise of its Indian builders. What it was intended for, whether tomb or temple, no one has determined with certainty, though the wisest antiquarians have been guessing since the conquest. In the midst of a plain the Indians erected a mountain. The base still remains to give us its dimensions; but what was its original height? Was it the tomb of some mighty lord, or sovereign prince; or was it alone a place of sacrifice?

Many years ago, in cutting a new road toward Puebla from Mexico, it became necessary to cross a portion of the base of this pyramid. The excavation laid bare a square chamber, built of stone, the roof of which was sustained by cypress beams. In it were found some idols of basalt, a number of painted vases, and the remains of two bodies. No care was taken of these relics by the discoverers, and they are lost to us for ever.

Approaching the pyramid from the east, it appears so broken and overgrown with trees that it is difficult to make out any outline distinctly. The view from the west, however, which I have given on the opposite page, will convey to you some idea of this massive monument as it rises in solitary grandeur from the midst of the wide-spreading plain. A well paved road, cut by the old Spaniards, ascends from the northwest corner, with steps at regular intervals, obliquing first on the west side to the upper bench of the terrace, and thence returning toward the same side until it is met by a steep flight rising to the front of the small, dome-crowned chapel, surrounded with its grove of cypress, and dedicated to the Virgin of Remedios.

The summit is perfectly level and protected by a parapet wall, whence a magnificent view extends on every side over the level valley. Whatever this edifice may have been, the idea of thus attaining permanently an elevation to which the people might resort for prayer—or even for parade or amusement—was a sublime conception, and entitles the men who centuries ago patiently erected the lofty pyramid, to the respect of

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RUINS OF THE PYRAMID OF CHOLULA—WESTERN VIEW

posterity. If his ancestor celebrated, here, a bloody sacrifice of victims taken in battle, the modern Indian may purify the hill from the crime by the celebration of a peaceful mass, and the sermon of a worthy padre!

There remain at present but four stories of the Pyramid of Cholula, rising above each other and connected by terraces. These stories are formed, as I before said, of sun-dried bricks, interspersed with occasional layers of plaster and stone work. And this is all that is to be told or described. Old as it is—interesting as it is—examined as it has been by antiquaries of all countries—the result has ever been the same. The Indians tell you that it was a place of sepulture, and the Mexicans give you the universal reply of ignorance in this country: "Quien Sabe?"—who knows—who can tell!

For those who are interested particularly in Mexican antiquities since the recent publications of Mr. Stephens, and the beautiful drawings of Mr. Catherwood, have greatly familiarized almost all classes with the monuments of ancient American grandeur, I will translate some of the descriptive remarks of the Baron Humboldt, who visited these ruins near the beginning of our century.

"The Pyramid of Cholula," says he, "is exactly of the same height as that of Tonatiuh Ytxaqual, at Teotihuacan," (which I shall describe hereafter.) "It is 3 mêtres higher than that of Mycerinus, or the third of the great Egyptian pyramids of the group of Djizeh. Its base, however, is larger than that of any pyramid hitherto discovered by travellers in the old World, and is double of that known as the Pyramid of Cheops.

"Those who wish to form an idea of the immense mass of this Mexican monument by the comparison of objects best known to them, may imagine a square, four times greater than that of the Place Vendôme in Paris, covered with layers of bricks rising to twice the elevation of the Louvre! Some persons imagine that the whole of the edifice is not artificial; but as far as explorations have been made, there is no reason to doubt that it is entirely a work of art. In its present state (and we are ignorant of its perfect original height,) its perpendicular proportion is to its base as 8 to 1, while in the three great pyramids of Djizeh, the proportion is found to be 1616 to 1716 to 1; or, nearly, as 8 to 5."

May not this have been but the base of some mighty temple destroyed long before the conquest, and of which even the tradition no longer lingers among the neighboring Indians!

In order to afford you additional means of comparison, I annex the following table, also from Humboldt, of the relative proportions of several well known pyramids.

The feet are pieds du roi:

PYRAMIDS BUILT OF STONE.   PYRAMIDS OF BRICK.
Cheops. Cephran. Mycerinus. 1 of 5 stories in Egypt
near Sakbarah
of 4 stories in Mexico
Teotihuacan Cholula
Height 448 feet. 398 feet. 162 feet 150 feet. 171 feet. 173 f
Base. 728 655 580 210 645 1355

In continuation, Humboldt observes, that "the inhabitants of Anahuac apparently designed giving the Pyramid of Cholula the same height, and double the base of the Pyramid at Teotihuacan, and that the Pyramid of Asychis, the largest known of the Egyptians, has a base of 800 feet, and is like that of Cholula, built of brick. The cathedral of Strasburg is 8 feet, and the cross of St. Peters, at Rome, 41 feet, lower than the top of the Pyramid of Cheops. Pyramids exist throughout Mexico; In the forests of Papantla at a short distance above the level of the sea; on the plains of Cholula and of Teotihuacan, at the elevations which exceed those of the passes of the Alps. In the most widely distant nations, in climates the most different, man seems to have adopted the same style of construction; the same ornaments, the same customs; and to have placed himself under the government of the same political institutions!"

Is this an argument that all men have sprung only from one stock? or that the human mind is the same everywhere, and, affected by similar interests or necessities invariably comes to the same result, whether in pointing a pyramid, or an arrow; in making a law, or a ladle?

Much as I distrust all the dark and groping efforts of antiquarians, I will nevertheless offer you some sketches and legends, which may serve, at least, to base a conjecture upon as to the divinity to whom this pyramid was erected; and to prove, perhaps, that it was intended as the foundation of a temple, and not the covering of a tomb.

A tradition which has been recorded by a Dominican monk who visited Cholula in 1566, is thus related from his work, by the traveller to whom I have already referred:

"Before the great inundation, which took place 4800 years after the creation of the world, the country of Anahuac was inhabited by giants, all of whom either perished in the inundation, or were transformed into fishes, save seven who fled into caverns.

"When the waters subsided, one of the giants, called Xelhua, surnamed "the Architect," went to Cholula, where, as a memorial of the Tlaloc[1] which had served for an asylum to himself and his six brethren, he built an artificial hill in the form of a pyramid. He ordered bricks to be made in the province of Tlalmanalco, at the foot of the Sierra of Cocotl, and in order to convey them to Cholula, he placed a file of men who passed them from hand to hand. The gods beheld, with wrath, an edifice the top of which was to reach the clouds. Irritated at the daring attempt of Xelhua, they hurled fire on the pyramid! Numbers of the workmen perished. The work was discontinued, and the monument was afterward dedicated to Qeutzalcoatl."

Now of this god Quetzalcoatl, we have the following story, which is given by Dr. M'Culloh, the most learned and laborious of writers upon American antiquities.

"Quetzalcoatl", or the "Feathered Serpent," was among the Mexicans, and all other nations of Auahuac, "god of the air." He was said to have been once high priest of Tula. They figured him tall, huge, of a fair complexion, broad forehead, large eyes, long black hair and flowing beard. From a love of decency he wore always a long robe, which was represented to have been spotted all over with red crosses. He was so rich that he had palaces of gold, silver, and precious stones. He was thought to possess the greatest industry, and to have invented the art of melting metals, and cutting gems. He was supposed to have had the most profound wisdom, which he displayed in the laws he left to mankind, and, above all, the most rigid and exemplary manners. Whenever he intended promulgating a law to his kingdom, he ordered a crier to the top of the mountain Tzatzitepec, or "hill of shouting;" near the city of Tula, from whence his voice was heard for three hundred miles. In his time the corn grew so strong that a single ear was a load for a man. Gourds were as long as a man's body. It was unnecessary to dye cotton, for it grew of all colors; all their fruits were in the same abundance, and of an extraordinary size. There was also at that period, an incredible number of beautiful and sweet-singing birds. In a word, the Mexicans imagined as much happiness under the priesthood of Quetzalcoatl, as the Greeks did under the reign of Saturn, whom this Mexican god also resembled in the exile he suffered.

"Amid all this prosperity Tezcatlipoca, their supreme but visible god, (we know not for what reason,) wishing to drive him from Tula, appeared to him in the form of an aged man, and told him it was the will of the gods that he should be taken to the kingdom of Tlapalla. At the same time he offered him a beverage, which was readily accepted, in hopes of obtaining that immortality after which he aspired. He no sooner drank it than he felt himself so strongly tempted to go to Tlapalla, that he set out at once, accompanied by many of his faithful subjects. Near the city of Quauhtitlan, he filled a tree with stones, which remained fixed in the trunk; and at Tlalnepautla he laid his hand upon a stone and left an impression which the Mexicans showed to the Spaniards. Upon his arrival at Cholula the citizens detained him, and made him take the government of their city. He showed much aversion to cruelty, and could not bear the mention of war. To him, the Cholulans say, they owe their knowledge of melting metals, the laws by which they were afterward governed, the rites and ceremonies of their religion, and, as some say, the arrangement of their seasons and calendar. Afler residing for 20 years in Cholula, he resolved to pursue his journey to his imaginary kingdom of Tlapalla, carrying along with him four noble and virtuous youths; but, on arriving at the maritime province of Coatzacoalco, he dismissed them, and desired them to assure the Cholulans that he would return to comfort and direct them. Some said that he suddenly disappeared, others that he died on the sea-shore; but however that may be, Quetzalcoatl was consecrated as a god by the Toltecas of Cholula, and made chief guardian of their city, in the centre of which, in honor of him, they raised a great eminence on which they built a temple. Another eminence, surmounted by a temple, was afterward erected to him in Tula. From Cholula his worship was spread over the country, where he was adored as "the god of the air." He had temples in Mexico and elsewhere, and some nations, even the enemies of the Cholulans, had temples and priests dedicated to his worship in the city of Cholula, whither persons came from all parts of the land to pay their devotions and fulfil their vows. His festivals were great and extraordinary, especially in Cholula.

"In every fourth, or divine year, they were preceded by a rigid fast of eighty days, and by dreadful austerities practiced by the priests consecrated to his worship. The Mexicans said, that Quetzalcoatl cleared the way for the 'god of the water', because in these countries rain is generally preceded by wind."

The following singular story in relation to this divinity and certain services of his temple, is to be found in the Nat. and Mor. Hist, of Acosta, book v. chap. 30.

"There was at this temple of Quetzalcoatl at Cholula, a court of reasonable greatness, in which they made great dances and pastimes with games and comedies, on the festival days of this idol; for which purpose there was in the midst of this court a theatre of thirty feet square, very finely decked and trimmed—the which they decked with flowers that day—with all the art and invention that might be, being environed around with arches of divers flowers and feathers, and in some places there were tied many small birds, conies, and other tame beasts. After dinner all the people assembled in this place, and the players presented themselves and played comedies. Some counterfeited the deaf and rheumatic; others the lame; some the blind and crippled which came to seek for cure from the idol. The deaf answered confusedly; the rheumatic coughed; the lame halted, telling their miseries and griefs, wherewith they made the people to laugh. Others came forth in the form of little beasts, some attired like snails, others like toads, and some like lizards; then meeting together they told their offices, and every one retiring to his place, they sounded on small flutes, which was pleasant to hear. They likewise counterfeited butterflies and small birds of divers colors, which were represented by the children who were sent to the temple for education. Then they went into a little forest, planted there for the purpose, whence the priests of the temple drew them forth with instruments of music. In the mean time they used many pleasant speeches, some in propounding, others in defending, wherewith the assistants were pleasantly entertained. This done, they made a masque, or mummery with all these personages, and so the feast ended."

From these traditions, we derive several important facts. First, that Quetzalcoatl, was "god of the air:" Second, that he was represented as a "feathered serpent:" Third, that he was the great divinity of the Cholulans: and, Fourth, that a hill was raised by them upon which they erected a temple to his glory, where they celebrated his festivals with pomp and splendor.

Combining all these, is it unreasonable to believe that the Pyramid of Cholula was the base of this temple, and that he was there worshipped as the Great Spirit of the air—or of the seasons; the God who produced the fruitfulness of the earth, regulated the sun, the wind and the shower, and thus spread plenty over the land? I have thought, too, that the serpent might not improbably typify lightnings and the feathers, swiftness; thus denoting one of the attributes of the air—and that the most speedy and destructive.

In a worship of propitiation, it would be most proper and reasonable that that destructive element should be personified and supplicated.

In the city of Mexico I constantly saw serpents, carved in stone, in the various collections of antiquities. One was presented to me by the Conde del Peñasco, and the drawings below, represent the figures of two "feathered serpents," which, after considerable labor I disinterred (I may say,) from a heap of dirt and rubbish, old boxes, chicken-coops and decayed fruit, in the court-yard of the University.


click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge.
These masses of stone are not only interesting on account of their connection with the Mexican Mythology, but they are beautiful specimens of Azteck art. The carving with which they are covered is executed with a neatness and gracefulness that would make them, as mere ornaments, worthy of the chisel of an ancient sculptor.

* * * *

The present town of Cholula is scarcely more than a village, and seems gradually still more decaying. At the conquest it was a city of much splendor, as we gather from the accounts of Cortez, who, in his letters to the Emperor speaks of it thus:

"This city of Churultecal[2] is situated on a plain, and contains twenty thousand houses within the body of the town, and as many in the suburb. Its people are well dressed, and its neighboring fields are exceedingly fertile; and I certify to your majesty, that, from one of the temples I have counted more than four hundred towers, and they are all the towers of temples!"

Such was Cholula when it fell under the Spanish sway, and there seems to be no reason to doubt, that, "sacred city" as it was held to be by the Indians of the period, the account of Cortez was indeed correct. But the temple is year after year crumbling, more and more, to decay; its outlines are becoming more and more indistinct; and of the race that worshipped on that pyramid, there now remains nothing but a few servile Indians who till the adjacent fields, and the women who throng the market-place with their fruits and flowers. I wanted some relics of the spot, and commissioning a proud-looking fellow, who may have been, for aught I know, a great great-great-great-grandson of some of the lords of Cholula, to hunt up a few antiquities; he brought me, after an hour's search among the ruins a quantity of pottery, heads of animals, fragments of vases, and a small idol sculptured in white marble. These are my souvenirs of Cholula.


  1. The mountain of Tlaloc lies in a westerly direction from the pyramid of Cholula, about thirty miles. It was visited last year and ascended with much difficulty by Mr. Ward and Mr. Jamison, who found, upon the very summit, the remains of extensive walls, the sides of which were due north and south. The day was exceedingly cold, and, suffering from the keen mountain air, they were unable to extend their explorations, especially as they were not prepared with the necessary tools, or to spend some time on the summit. They dug, however, with the blades of their swords among the ruins, and found a number of small images and heads of clay, similar to those which will be hereinafter described.
  2. The ancient name of Cholula.