Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/May 1891/The Mexican Messiah
THERE are few more puzzling characters to be found in the pages of history than Quetzatcoatl, the wandering stranger whom the early Mexicans adopted as the air-god of their mythology. That he was a real personage — that he was a white man from this side of the Atlantic, who lived and taught in Mexico centuries before Columbus was born — that what he taught was Christianity and Christian manners and morals — all these are plausible inferences from facts and circumstances so peculiar as to render other conclusion well-nigh impossible.
When, in 1519, Cortes and his companions landed in Mexico, they were astonished at being hailed as the realization of an ancient native tradition, which ran in this wise: Many centuries previously a white man had come across the Atlantic from the northeast, in a boat with "wings" (sails), like those of the Spanish vessels. He stayed several years in the country, and taught the Mexicans (Toltecs) a new and humane system of religion, instructed them in the principles of good government, and imparted to them a knowledge of many useful industrial arts. He loved peace, and had a horror of war. By his great wisdom and knowledge of divine things, his piety and his many personal and god-like virtues, he won the esteem and veneration of all the people, and exercised great control over them. His sojourn in Mexico was a kind of golden age. Peace, plenty, and happiness prevailed throughout the land. The Mexicans knew him as Quetzatcoatl, or the Green Serpent, the word "green" in their language being a term for a rare and precious thing. Through some malign influence Quetzatcoatl was obliged or induced to quit the country. On his way to the coast he stayed for a time at the city of Cholula, where, subsequently, a great pyramidical mound, surmounted by a temple, was erected in his honor. On the shores of the Gulf of Mexico he took leave of his followers, soothing their sorrow at his departure with the assurance that he would not forget them, and that he himself, or some one sent by him, would return at some future time to visit them. He had made for himself a vessel of serpents' skins, and in this strange contrivance he sailed away in a northeasterly direction for his own country, the Holy Island, or Tlapallan, beyond the great ocean.
Such, in outline, was the tradition which Cortes found prevalent in Mexico on his arrival there, and powerfully influencing every inhabitant of the country. The Spaniards found that their advent was hailed as the fulfillment of the promise of Quetzatcoatl to return. The natives saw that they were white men, and bearded, like him; they had come in sailing-vessels such as the one he had used across the sea; they had clearly come from the mysterious Tlapallan; they were undoubtedly Quetzatcoatl and his brethren come, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, to restore the period of peace and prosperity which the country had experienced for a short time many hundreds of years before.
The Spaniards made no scruple of encouraging and confirming a belief so highly favorable to their designs, and it is conceded by their writers that this belief, to a large extent, accounts for the comparative ease and marvelous rapidity with which a mere handful of men made themselves masters of a great and civilized empire and subjugated a warlike population of millions. To the last the unfortunate emperor Montezuma held to the belief that the King of Spain was Quetzatcoatl and Cortes his lieutenant and emissary under a sort of divine commission.
The Mexicans had preserved a minute and apparently an accurate description of the personal appearance and habits of Quetzatcoatl. He was a white man, advanced in years and tall in stature. His forehead was broad; he had a large beard and black hair. He is described as dressing in a long garment, over which there was a mantle marked with crosses. He was chaste and austere, temperate and abstemious, fasting frequently, and sometimes inflicting severe penances on himself, even to the drawing of blood. This is a description which was preserved for centuries in the traditions of a people who had no intercourse with or knowledge of Europe, who had never seen a white man, and who were themselves dark-skinned, with but few scanty hairs on the chin to represent a beard.
It is, therefore, difficult to suppose that this curiously accurate portraiture of Quetzatcoatl as an early European ecclesiastic was a mere invention in all its parts. Nor is it easier to understand why the early Mexicans should have been at pains to invent a Messiah so different from themselves and with such peculiar attributes. Yet, in spite of destructive wars, revolutions, and invasions; in spite of the breaking up and dispersal of tribes and nations once settled in the vast region now passing under the name of Mexico, the tradition of Quetzatcoatl, and the account of his personal peculiarities, survived among the people to the days of the Spanish invasion.
But time and change must have done much in the course of centuries to confuse the teachings of Quetzatcoatl. Notwithstanding such mutation, enough remained of them to impress the Spaniards of the sixteenth century with the belief that he must have been an early Christian missionary, as well as a native of Europe. They found that many of the religious beliefs of the Mexicans bore an unaccountable resemblance to those of Christians.
The religion of the Mexicans, as the Spaniards found it, was in truth an amazing and most unnatural combination of what appeared to be Christian beliefs and Christian virtues and morality with the bloody rites and idolatrous practices of pagan barbarians. The mystery was soon explained to the Spaniards by the Mexicans themselves. The milder part of the Mexican religion was that which Quetzatcoatl had taught to the Toltecs, a people who had ruled in Mexico some centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. The Aztecs were in possession of power when the Spaniards came, and it was they who had introduced that part of the Mexican religion which was in such strong contrast to the religion established by Quetzatcoatl. It appeared further that the Toltec rule in the land had ceased about the middle of the eleventh century. They were a people remarkably advanced in civilization and mental and moral development. They were well versed in the arts and sciences, and their astronomical knowledge was in many respects in advance of that of Europe. They established laws and regular government in Mexico during their stay in the country, but about the year a. d. 1050 they disappeared south by a voluntary migration, the cause of which remains a mystery.
It was not until the middle of the fourteenth century that the Aztecs acquired sufficiently settled habits to enable them to found states and cities, and by that time they seem to have adopted as much of what had been left of Toltec civilization and Toltec religion as they were capable of absorbing, without, however, abandoning their own ruder ideas and propensities. Hence the incongruous mixture of civilization and barbarism, mildness and ferocity, gentleness and cruelty, refinement and brutality presented by Mexican civilization and religion to the Spaniards when they entered the country two centuries later. "Aztec civilization was made up," as Prescott says, "of incongruities, apparently irreconcilable. It blended into one the marked peculiarities of different nations, not only of the same phase of civilization, but as far removed from each other as the extremes of barbarism and refinement."
The better that is, the Toltec side of this mixed belief included among its chief features a recognition of the existence of a Supreme God, vested with all the attributes of the Jehovah of the Jews. He was the creator and the ruler of the universe, and the fountain of all good. Subordinate to him were a number of minor deities, and opposed to him a father of all evil. There was a paradise for the abode of the just after death, and a place of darkness and torment for the wicked. There was an intermediate place. There had been a common mother of all men, always pictorially represented as in company with a serpent. Her name was Cioacoatl, or the serpent woman, and it was held that "by her sin came into the world." She had twin children, and in an Aztec picture preserved in the Vatican at Rome those children are represented as quarreling. The Mexicans believed in a universal deluge, from which only one family (that of Coxcox) escaped. Nevertheless, they spoke of a race of wicked giants, who had survived the flood and built a pyramid in order to reach the clouds; the gods frustrated their design by raining fire upon it. Tradition associated the great pyramid at Cholula with this event. The traditions of Cioacoatl, Coxcox, the giants, and the pyramid at Cholula are extremely like a confused acquaintance with biblical narratives.
The points of resemblance with real Christianity were too numerous and too peculiar to permit the supposition that the similarity was accidental and unreal. The only difficulty was to account for the possession of Christian knowledge by a people so remote and outlandish or rather to trace the identity of Quetzatcoatl, the undoubted teacher of the Mexicans. Their choice lay between the devil and St. Thomas. However respectable the claims of the former, it is clear enough that St. Thomas was not Quetzatcoatl and had never been in Mexico. He was dragged in at all because the Spaniards long cherished the idea that America was a part of India, and St. Thomas was styled the Apostle of India on the authority of an ancient and pious but very doubtful tradition. The weakness of the case for St. Thomas secured a preference for the claims of the devil, and the consensus of Spanish opinion favored the idea that Quetzatcoatl was the devil himself, who, aroused by the losses which Christ had inflicted upon him in the Old World, had sought compensation in the New, and had beguiled the Mexicans into the acceptance of a blasphemous mockery of the religion of Christ more wicked and damnatory than the worst form of paganism.
Lord Kingsborough makes the suggestion that Quetzatcoatl was no other than Christ himself, and in support of this maintains that the phonetic rendering in the Mexican language of the two words "Jesus-Christ" would be as nearly as possible "Quetzat-Coatl." He does not mean to say that Christ was ever in Mexico; but his suggestion is that the Mexicans, having obtained an early knowledge of Christianity and become acquainted with the name and character of its divine founder, imagined in subsequent ages that Christ had actually been in Mexico, and so built up the tradition of Quetzatcoatl. But this theory does not get rid of—it makes essential—the presence of a missionary in Mexico, through whom the people were instructed in the truths of Christianity, and from whom they obtained a knowledge of Christ.
It is hard to understand what it was that Quetzatcoatl taught if it was not Christianity, and equally hard to conceive what he could have been if he were not a Christian missionary. A white man, with all the peculiarities of a European, teaches to a remote and isolated pagan people something the remnants of which centuries afterward are found to bear an extraordinary resemblance to Christianity. The teacher himself is depicted as a perfect and exalted type of a Christian missionary, though the Mexicans could have no model to guide them in their delineation of such a character. Long, earnestly, and successfully he preached the worship of the great unseen but all-present God, and taught the Mexicans to trust in an omnipotent and benevolent Father in heaven. He preached peace and good-will among men, and "he stopped his ears when war was spoken of." He taught and encouraged the cultivation of the earth and the arts and sciences of peace and civilization. The impression he made was, indeed, so profound that the memory of his virtues and good works survived through centuries of change and trouble, and made him acceptable as a god even to the rude, intruding barbarians, who only learned of him remotely and at second hand ages after the completion of his mission. Can he, then, be an imaginary person? Could the early Mexican pagans have evolved such a character from their own fancy or created it out of pagan materials? The thing seems incredible. It would indeed be curious if the Mexicans never having seen a white man, and wholly ignorant of European ideas and beliefs had invented a fable of a white man sojourning among them; it would be still more curious if, in addition to this, they had invented another fable of that white man instructing them in European religion and morals. The white man without the teaching might be a possible but still a doubtful story; the teaching without a white man would be difficult to believe; but the white man and the teaching together make up a complete and consistent whole almost precluding the possibility of invention.
Three points in relation to Quetzatcoatl seem well established: (1) he was a white man from across the Atlantic; (2) he taught religion to the Mexicans; (3) the religion he taught retained to after-ages many strong and striking resemblances to Christianity. The conclusion seems unavoidable that Quetzatcoatl was a Christian missionary from Europe, who taught Christianity to the Mexicans, or Toltecs.
Accepting this as established, the possibility of fixing the European identity of Quetzatcoatl presents itself as a curious but obviously difficult question. To begin with, the era of Quetzatcoatl is not known with any precision. It has a possible range of some six and a half centuries from before the beginning of the fourth century to the middle of the tenth century; that is, from about A. D. 400 to A. D. 1050, which is the longest time assigned to Toltec domination in Mexico. The era of Quetzatcoatl may, however, be safely confined to narrower limits. The Toltecs must have been well settled in the country before Quetzatcoatl appeared among them, and he must have left them some considerable time before their migration from Mexico. The references to Quetzatcoatl's visits to the Toltec cities prove the former, and the time which would have been required to arrange for and complete the great pyramid built at Cholula in honor of the departed Quetzatcoatl proves the latter. From a century to two centuries may be allowed at each end of the period from a. d. 400 to a. d. 1050, and it may be assumed with some degree of probability that Quetzatcoatl's visit to Mexico took place some time between (say) a. d. 500 and A. D. 900.
If attention is directed to the condition of Europe during that time, it will be found that the period from about a. d. 500 to a. d. 800 was one of great missionary activity. Before the former date the Church was doing little more than feeling its way and developing its strength in the basin of the Mediterranean, and making extensions in settled states. After the latter date the incursions and devastations of the northern barbarians paralyzed European missionary efforts. But from the beginning of the fifth to the beginning of the eighth century there was no limit to missionary enterprise, and, if ever a Christian missionary had appeared in Mexico, all the probabilities favor the theory that he must have gone there within those centuries. The era of Quetzatcoatl may therefore be narrowed to those three hundred years, and the task of tracing his identity thus simplified to some slight extent.
It may now be asked, Is it reasonable to expect that there are, or ever were, any European records of the period from a. d. 500 to A. D. 800 referring to any missionary who might have been Quetzatcoatl? It is a long time since Quetzatcoatl, whoever he was, sailed from the shores of Europe to carry the truths of Christianty into the unknown regions beyond the Atlantic, but the literary records of his assumed period are numerous and minute, and might possibly have embraced some notice of his undertaking. It seems unlikely that his enterprise would have escaped attention altogether, especially from the ecclesiastical chroniclers, who were not given to ignoring the good works of their fellow-religionists. Moreover, the mission of Quetzatcoatl was not one which, could have been launched quietly or obscurely, nor was there any reason why it should be. The contemplated voyage must have been a matter of public knowledge and comment in some locality; it could not have been attempted without preparations on some scale of magnitude ; and such preparations for such a purpose must have attracted at least local attention and excited local interest. It is thus reasonable to suppose that the importance and singularity of a project to cross the Atlantic for missionary purposes would have insured some record being made of the enterprise. A fortiori, if the venturesome missionary ever succeeded in returning—if he ever came back to tell of his wonderful adventures—the fact would have been chronicled by his religious confrères and made the most of then and for the benefit of future ages. It comes, therefore, to this accepting Quetzatcoatl as a Christian missionary from Europe, we have right and reason to expect that his singular and pious expedition would have been put upon record somewhere.
The next step in the inquiry is to search for the most likely part of Europe to have been the scene of the going forth and possible return of this missionary. The island of Tlapallan, according to the Mexican tradition, was the home whence he came and whither he sought to return. The name of the country affords no assistance, and it might not be safe to attach importance to its insular designation. But in looking for a country in western Europe possibly an island which from A. d. 500 to A. D. 800 might have sent out a missionary on a wild transatlantic expedition, one is soon struck with the possibility of Ireland being such a country. To the question, "Could Ireland have been the Tlapallan, or Holy Island, of the Mexican tradition?" an affirmative answer may readily be given, especially by any one who knows even a little of the ecclesiastical history of the country from A. D. 500 to A. D. 800. In that period no country was more forward in missionary enterprise. The Irish ecclesiastics shrunk from no adventures by land or sea, however desperate and dangerous, when the eternal salvation of heathen peoples was in question. On land they penetrated to all parts of the Continent, preaching the gospel of Christ and founding churches and religious establishments. On sea they made voyages for like purposes to the remotest known lands of the northern and western seas. They went as missionaries to all parts of the coast of northern Britain, and visited the Hebrides, the Orkneys, and the Shetland and Faro Islands. Even remote Iceland received their pious attention, and Christianity was established by them in that island long before it was taken possession of by the Norwegians in the eighth century.
Prima facie, then, Ireland has not only a good claim, but really the best claim, to be the Tlapallan of the Mexicans. It is the most western part of Europe; it is insular, and in the earlier centuries of the Christian era was known as the "Holy Island"; between a. d. 500 and a. d. 800 it was the most active center of missionary enterprise in Europe, and its missionaries were conspicuous above all others for their daring maritime adventures. It is natural, therefore, to suspect that Ireland may have been the home of Quetzatcoatl, and, if that were so, to expect that early Irish records would contain some references to him and his extraordinary voyage. Upon this the inquiry suggests itself, Do the early Irish chronicles, which are voluminous and minute, contain anything relating to a missionary voyage across the Atlantic at all corresponding to that which Quetzatcoatl must have taken from some part of western Europe?
To one who, step by step, had arrived at this stage of the present inquiry, it was not a little startling to come across an obscure and almost forgotten record, which is, in all its main features, in most striking conformity with the Mexican legend of Quetzatcoatl. This is the curious account of the transatlantic voyage of a certain Irish ecclesiastic named St. Brendan, in the middle of the sixth century about a. d. 550. The narrative appears to have attracted little or no attention in modern times, but it was widely diffused during the middle ages. In the Bibliothèque at Paris there are said to be no fewer than eleven MSS. of the original Latin narrative, the dates of which range from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. It is also stated that versions of it in old French and Romance exist in most of the public libraries of France; and in many other parts of Europe there are copies of it in Irish, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. It is reproduced in Usher's Antiquities, and is to be found in the Cottonian collection of MSS.
This curious account of St. Brendan's voyage may be altogether a romance, as it has long been held to be; but the remarkable thing about it is the singularity of its general concurrence with the Mexican tradition of Quetzatcoatl.
St. Brendan, called the "Navigator" from his many voyages, was an Irish bishop, who in his time founded a great monastery at Clonfert on the shores of Kerry, and was the head of a confraternity, or order, of three thousand monks. The story of his transatlantic voyage is as follows: From the eminence now called, after him, Brendan Mountain, the saint had long gazed upon the Atlantic at his feet, and speculated on the perilous condition of the souls of the unconverted peoples who possibly inhabited unknown countries on the other side. At length, in the cause of Christianity, and for the glory of God, he resolved upon a missionary expedition across the ocean, although he was then well advanced in years. With this purpose he caused a stout bark to be constructed and provisioned for a long voyage, a portion of his supplies consisting of live swine. Taking with him some trusty companions, he sailed from Trawlee Bay, at the foot of Brendan Mountain, in a southwesterly direction. The voyage lasted many weeks, during several of which the vessel was carried along by a strong current without need of help from oars or sails. In the land which he ultimately reached the saint spent seven years in instructing the people in the truths of Christianity. He then left them, promising to return at some future time. He arrived safely in Ireland, and in after-years (mindful of the promise he had made to his transatlantic converts) he embarked on a second voyage. This, however, was frustrated by contrary winds and currents, and he returned to Ireland, where he died in 578, at the ripe age of ninety-four, and in "the odor of sanctity."
It would be idle to expect a plain, matter-of-fact account of St. Brendan's voyage from the chroniclers of the sixth century. The narrative is, in fact, interwoven with several supernatural occurrences. But, eliminating these, there remains enough of apparently real incident worthy of serious attention. The whole story, as already suggested, may be a mere pious fable promulgated and accepted in a non-critical and ignorant and credulous age. If substantially true, the fact could not be verified in such an age; if a pure invention, its falsity can not now be demonstrated. All that can be said about it is that it is in wonderful agreement with what is known, or may be inferred, from the Mexican legend. The story of St. Brendan's voyage was written long before Mexico was heard of, and, if forged, it could not have been with a view to offering a plausible explanation of a singular Mexican tradition. And yet the solution which it offers of that tradition is so complete and apropos on all material points as almost to preclude the idea of accidental coincidence. In respect to epoch, personal characteristics, race, religion, direction of coming and going, the Mexican Quetzatcoatl might well have been the Irish saint. Both were white men, both were advanced in years, both crossed the Atlantic from the same direction of Europe, both preached Christianity and Christian practices, both returned across the Atlantic to an insular home or Holy Island, both promised to come back, and failed in doing so. These are certainly remarkable coincidences, if accidental.
The date of St. Brendan's voyage—the middle of the sixth century is conveniently within the limits which probability would assign to the period of Quetzatcoatl's sojourn in Mexico, namely, from about the fifth to the eighth centuries. The possibility of making a voyage in such an age from the western shores of Europe to Mexico is proved by the fact that the voyage was made by Quetzatcoatl, whatever part of Europe he may have belonged to. The probability of St. Brendan designing such a voyage is supported alike by the renown of the saint as a "navigator," and by the known maritime enterprises and enthusiastic missionary spirit of the Irish of his time; the supposition that he succeeded in his design is countenanced by the ample preparations he is said to have made for the voyage.
There is a disagreement between the Mexican tradition and the Irish narrative in respect to the stay of the white man in Mexico. Quetzatcoatl is said to have remained twenty years in the country, but only seven years—seven Easters—are assigned to the absence of St. Brendan from his monastery. Either period would probably suffice for laying the foundations of the Christianity the remnants of which the Spaniards found in the beginning of the sixteenth century. On this point the Irish record is more likely to be correct. The Mexican tradition was already very ancient when the Spaniards became acquainted with it as ancient as the sway of the vanquished Toltecs. For centuries it had been handed down from generation to generation, and not always through generations of the same people. It is, therefore, conceivable that it may have undergone variations in some minor particulars, and that a stay of seven years became exaggerated into one of twenty. The discrepancy is not a serious one, and is in no sense a touchstone of the soundness of the theory that Quetzatcoatl and St. Brendan may have been one and the same person.
A curious feature of the Mexican tradition is its apparently needless insistency upon the point that Quetzatcoatl sailed away from Mexico in a vessel of serpents' skins. There seems no special reason for attributing this extraordinary mode of navigation to him. If the design were to enhance his supernatural attributes, some more strikingly miraculous mode of exit could easily have been invented. The first impulse, accordingly, is to reject this part of the tradition as hopelessly inexplicable—as possibly allegorical in some obscure way, or as originating in a misnomer, or in the mistranslation of an ancient term. But further consideration suggests the possibility of there being more truth in the "serpents' skins " than appears at first sight. In the absence of large quadrupeds in their country the ancient Mexicans made use of serpents' skins as a substitute for hides. The great drums on the top of their temple-crowned pyramids were, Cortes states, made of the skins of a large species of serpent, and when beaten for alarm could be heard for miles around. It may, therefore, be that Quetzatcoatl, in preparing for his return voyage across the Atlantic, made use of this material to cover the hull of his vessel and render it water-tight. The Mexicans were not boat-builders, and were unacquainted with the use of tar or pitch, employing only canoes dug out of the solid timber. When Cortes was building the brigantines with which he attacked the city of Mexico from the lake, he had to manufacture the tar he required from such suitable trees as he could find. Quetzatcoatl may have used serpents' skins for a similar purpose, and such use would imply that the vessel in which he sailed away was not a mere canoe, but a built-up boat. If he was really St. Brendan, nothing is more likely than that he should seek for a substitute for tar or pitch in skins of some sort. Coming from the west coast of Ireland, he would be familiar with the native curracles, coracles, or hide-covered boats then in common use (and not yet wholly discarded) for coasting purposes, and sometimes for voyages to the coasts of Britain and the continent of Europe. Some of these were of large size, and capable of carrying a small mast, the body being a stout framework of ash ribs, covered with hides of oxen, sometimes of threefold thickness. It may have been a vessel of this kind which Quetzatcoatl constructed for his return voyage, or it may be that he employed the serpents' skins for the protection of the seams of his built-up boat in lieu of tar or pitch. In any case the tradition makes him out a navigator and boat-builder of some experience, and if he were really St. Brendan he would have had a knowledge of the Irish mode of constructing and navigating sea-going crafts, and would probably have employed serpents' skins, the best Mexican substitute for ox-hide, in either of the ways suggested.
In the Mexican tradition there is no certain reference to Quetzatcoatl having with him companions of his own country, though in the story of St. Brendan the Irish saint is given such companions both in his going out and coming back. But the Mexican tradition nowhere negatives, either by implication or directly, that Quetzatcoatl had companions of his own race, and it seems in the highest degree improbable that he could have crossed the Atlantic both ways alone and unassisted by comrades. It may, therefore, be supposed that the fact of Quetzatcoatl having attendants of the same religion and nationality as himself was a detail omitted from an account which chiefly concerned itself with the great figure of Quetzatcoatl himself.
It would be presumptuous to claim that the identity of Quetzatcoatl with St. Brendan has been completely established in this essay, but it may reasonably be submitted that there is no violent inconsistency involved in the theory herein advanced, and an examination of the evidence upon which it is based discloses many remarkable coincidences in favor of the opinion that the Mexican Messiah may have been the Irish saint. Beyond this it would not be safe to go, and it is not probable that future discoveries will enable the identity of Quetzatcoatl to be more clearly traced.—Gentleman's Magazine.