Myth, Ritual, and Religion/Volume 2/Appendix C
MR. LEWIS MORGAN AND THE AZTECS.
"When we beheld so many cities and towns builded in the lake; and, on dry land, other great cities and that causeway, so fairly levelled, leading straight to Mexico, we stood gazing in amazement. We said that this fair spectacle, with the tall towers, the temples, and the buildings all of stone rising from the water, was like the cities of enchantment in 'Amadis de Gaule!' "
Thus does Bernal Diaz, one of the companions of Cortes, describe the most romantic moment in human history—the approach of the European invaders to the great centre of the Aztec civilisation.
The late Mr. Lewis Morgan, in his celebrated article "The Dinner of Montezuma," attempted to show that Bernal Diaz's report was nearly as fabulous as "Amadis de Gaule." He maintained that the Aztecs were but a confederacy of "pueblo Indians," and that their civilisation was but a stage above that of the contemporary Iroquois. This astonishing theory does not seem to have been examined in England; and people appear to take it for granted that Mr. Morgan, who had not been in early Mexico, knew the place better than Cortes and Bernal Diaz, who actually visited it—a kind of cleverness satirised by the Delphian Oracle when it was displayed by the first colonists of Cyrene.
Αἰ τὺ ἐμεῦ Λιβύην μηλοτρὀφον οἶδας ἄμεινον,
Μὴ ἐλθὼν ἐλθόντος, ἄγαν ἄγαμαι σοφίην σευ.
- Herodot. iv. 157.
Mr. Morgan did very considerable services to ethnology. He was an affiliated Iroquois; he knew that people well; he described their institutions excellently; he also discovered the wide prevalence of the "classificatory system" of reckoning kindred, or, at least, the system of addressing kinsfolk. But he was no great scholar, nor a very exact reasoner. He was convinced that the Aztecs were plain pueblo Indians, like the Zunis of to-day; and that the descriptions of Cortes and Bernal Diaz Were based on sheer misunderstanding and interested exaggeration.
Now let it be granted, to save space, that the Spaniards were mistaken when they recognised the feudal system in Mexico. Let it be granted that "Empire" is a large word to apply to the Aztec confederacy with its sway over neighbouring tribes and its exactions of tribute. Let it be granted that the chief was elected within a dynastic stock like that of the Bacchiadæ of Corinth. Let it be granted that the Aztecs dwelt in huge "house communities," large joint-tenement houses; that they dined together, much after the manner of the Spartan and Cretan Syssitia, and that the women fed apart. And what follows? It does by no means follow that the Aztecs were in the social condition of pueblo or village Indians or Iroquois.
In the first place, the size and beauty of the Aztec cities made them seem to the plain honest Bernal Diaz like the enchanted palaces of romance. No one who has either been in Zuni territory, or seen the sketches of squalid pueblos published by Mr. Cushing in the Century Magazine, will believe that such large communal hovels could have been mistaken for enchanted palaces by Cortes. The Spaniards were accustomed to the aspect of palaces and cathedrals compared with which modern architecture has nothing to show. The interior of the Mexican houses also delighted the Spaniards by the beauty of the carved and polished stonework. Mr. Morgan may not have been able to understand how the stone was wrought by Mexican implements; but in Central America and Yucatan the beauty of the surviving stonework is only equalled by the great extent of those mysterious and highly carved edifices decorated with hieroglyphics of unknown significance. It is absurd to speak of the builders of temples and palaces which throw Mycenæ into the shade and rival the remains of Cambodia, as "the village Indians of Central America." Making the utmost allowances, the town of Mexico was a large town, much larger than ancient Athens, and could only be called a "village" by a theorist with an hypothesis to maintain. Mr. Morgan spoke of the Mexicans as "a barbarous people without field agriculture." Yet he quotes Herrera's description of "the beauty of the fields most regularly cultivated" in Peru; and no one, we think, has maintained that, in husbandry, the Peruvians were in advance of the Aztecs. Nay, from Sahagun and Cieza de Leon we learn that maize played an equal part in the civilisation and religion of both countries, and the Aztecs had a Demeter, a goddess of agriculture, of their own. The great golden treasures of the temples were not exaggerated by the Spaniards, nor was the elaborate hieratic system with its splendour and cruelties. No such wealth, no such ritual magnificence can be found in the huts and the snake-feasts of village Indians, Zunis and Moquis. Mr. Morgan laughs at the "secretaries" of Montezuma. How could there be secretaries, he asks, where there was no "cursive writing"? Apparently he never heard of the famous statue of the secretary of the ancient empire in Egypt, or the other representations of kneeling scribes in a land and age where writing could scarcely be called "cursive" any more than the picture-writing of Mexico. If we had nothing but the Mexican MSS. reproduced by Lord Kingsborough, those alone would prove how remote from the birch-bark scrawls of "village Indians" was the Aztec schrift. The Egyptian scribe, by the way (Chipiez and Perrot, i. 192), is naked, save for a breech-cloth. Mr. Morgan tries to make out that the Aztecs were no better dressed. If it were true, it does not follow that Aztec was inferior to Egyptian civilisation. Mr. Morgan was much shocked by the notion that Montezuma was approached with Oriental reverence. He was only a "sachem," says Mr. Morgan. It cannot be true that people were obliged to take off their shoes in his presence, because the people went barefoot. Yet he acknowledges that Spanish evidence about their dress may be trusted; and Bernal Diaz expressly tells us that they wore "cutaras, so they call their shoon." Montezuma outdid the Duke in the "Bab Ballads," who
"Wore a pair of silver boots
And golden underclothing."
The soles of his cutaras were of gold, the upper part studded with precious stones. Acosta says the common folk might not wear shoes; but Mr. Morgan supposes these distinctions of ranks to have been fancies of the Spaniards. Mr. Morgan makes much to do about the separation of the sexes at dinner. Mdme. D'Aulnoy found the same custom in Spain in the reign of Charles II.; and Herodotus tells us it prevailed among the Milesians. It is not, then, merely a mark of the status of village Indians. Mr. Morgan thinks that the Aztecs, like the Iroquois, were socially divided into what he calls "phratries and gentes;" but he borrows these highly misleading terms from Greece and Rome. The Greeks and Romans of the Periclean age, or in the time of the Scipios, had their gentes and "phratries;" but they were somewhat higher in civilisation than village Indians. As to Montezuma's dinner, Aztecs may have had large communal meals, and so may Iroquois; but so, also, had Cretans and Spartans, and Plato would have introduced the custom into his ideal Republic. Mr. Morgan, with the Iroquois in his mind, keeps repeating that an Aztec meal "was divided from the kettle in earthen bowls;" and that each man, without table or seat, fed from a bowl in his hand. Mr. Morgan never dined with Montezuma. Bernal Diaz did; and found "about thirty sorts of ragoûts," which were served on braziers or chafing-dishes of earthenware to keep them hot. Could thirty sorts of ragoûts be cooked in Mr. Morgan's kettle? The attendants used to point out the best plats. There would be no distinction of plats in a communal meal cooked in a kettle. The tables and chairs are particularly described, and the fire-screen adorned with gold-work. Mr. Morgan reaches the climax of his theory, and puts his hobby at its highest fence, when he actually declares that the Aztecs "had scarcely anything of value to Europeans." The conquerors set another price on massive chains and plates and idols of gold.
What, then, remains of truth in Mr. Morgan's vision? Merely this: that the communal land tenure, the Syssitia, the limited elective choice of the ruler, and other Aztec institutions, may be highly developed social phenomena evolved out of the ruder institutions of peoples like the Iroquois. Our own institutions—the throne, the Houses of Parliament, and so forth—have been evolved in the same way out of early Teutonic arrangements. But the Aztecs were no more village Indians than we are in the condition of the German warriors of Tacitus. Their "village," Mr. Morgan admits, was peculiar in so far as it possessed "streets and squares." Mr. Morgan's opinion that the Aztecs were of the same race as the Red Men is a dogma which certainly cannot be accepted offhand. It is impossible to reverse history because Mr. Morgan, as a good Iroquois, saw Iroquois all over America.