The Native Religions of Mexico and Peru/Lecture II

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




Ladies and Gentlemen,

It will be my task to-day to give an account of the Mexican mythology and religion, resting as it does on the foundation common to the peoples of Central America, but inspired by the sombre, utilitarian, matter-of-fact, yet vigorous and earnest, genius of the Aztecs. You will remember that this name belongs to the warlike and commercial people that enjoyed, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, a military and political supremacy in the region that is now called Mexico, after the Aztec capital of that name.


To begin with, we must note that the ancient Central-American cultus of the Sun and Moon, considered as the two supreme deities, was by no means renounced by the Aztecs. Ometecutli (i.e. twice Lord) and Omecihuatl (twice Lady), or in other words supreme Lord and Lady, are the designations under which they are always indicated in the first rank in the religious formulæ. All the Mexicans called themselves "children of the Sun," and greeted him every morning with hymns and with trumpet peals, accompanied with offerings. Four times by day and four times by night, priests who were attached to the various temples addressed their devotions to him. And yet he had no temple specially consecrated to him. The fact was that all temples were really his, much as in our own Christian civilization all the churches are raised in honour of God, though particular designations are severally given to them. The Sun was the teotl (i. e. the god) par excellence. I am informed that to this very day the inhabitants of secluded parts of Mexico, as they go to mass, throw a kiss to the sun before entering the church.

Notwithstanding all this, we have to observe that, by an inconsistency which again has its analogies in other religions, the cultus of the supreme deity and his consort was pretty much effaced in the popular devotions and practices by that of divinities who were perhaps less august, and in some cases were even derived from the substance of the supreme deity himself, but in any case seemed to stand nearer to humanity than he did. More especially, the national deities of the Aztecs, the guardians of their empire, whose worship they instituted wherever their arms had triumphed, practically took the first place. It is with these national deities that we are now to make acquaintance, and we cannot do better than begin with the two great deities of the city of Mexico, whose colossal statues were enthroned on its principal temple.

But first we must form some notion of what a Mexican temple was.

The word "temple," if held to imply an enclosed and covered building, is very improperly applied to the kind of edifice in question. Indeed, a Mexican temple (and the same may be said of most of the sanctuaries of Central America) was essentially a gigantic altar, of pyramidal form, built in several stages, contracting as they approached the summit. The number of these retreating stories or terraces might vary. There were never less than three, but there might be as many as five or six, and in Tezcuco some of these quasi-pyramids even numbered nine. The one that towered over all the rest in the city of Mexico was built in five stages. It measured, at its base, about three hundred and seventy-five feet in length and three hundred in width, and was over eighty feet high. At a certain point in each terrace was the stair that sloped across the side of the pyramid to the terrace above; but the successive ascents were so arranged that it was necessary to make the complete circuit of the edifice in order to mount from one stage to another, and consequently the grand processions to which the Mexicans were so much devoted must have encircled the whole edifice from top to bottom, like a huge living serpent, before the van could reach the broad platform at the top, and this must have added not a little to the picturesque effect of these religious ceremonies. Such an erection was called a teocalli or "abode of the gods." The great teocalli of Mexico commanded the four chief roads that parted from its base to unite the capital to all the countries beneath the sceptre of its rulers. It was the palladium of the empire, and, as at Jerusalem, it was the last refuge of the defenders of the national independence.

The teocalli which Fernando Cortes and his companions saw at Mexico, and which the conqueror razed to the ground, to replace it by a Catholic church, was not of any great antiquity. It had been constructed thirty-four years before, in the place of another much smaller one that dated from the time when the Aztecs were but an insignificant tribe; and it seems that frightful human hecatombs had ensanguined the foundations of this more recent teocalli. Some authorities speak of seventy-two or eighty thousand victims, while more moderate calculations reduce the number to twenty thousand, which is surely terrible enough. In front of the temple there stretched a spacious court some twelve hundred feet square. All around were smaller buildings, which served as habitations for the priests, and store-houses for the apparatus of worship, as well as arsenals, oratories for the sovereign and the grandees of the empire, chapels for the inferior deities and so on. Amongst these buildings was the temple in which, as I have said, the gods of the conquered peoples were literally imprisoned. In another the Spaniards could count a hundred and thirty-six thousand symmetrically-piled skulls. They were the skulls of all the victims that had been sacrificed since the foundation of the sanctuary. And, by a contrast no less than monstrous, side by side with this monument of the most atrocious barbarism there were halls devoted to the care of the poor and sick, who were tended gratuitously by priests.[1] What a tissue of contradictions is man!

But the Aztec religion does not allow us to dwell upon the note of tenderness. In the centre of the broad platform at the summit stood the stone of sacrifices, a monolith about three feet high, slightly ridged on the surface. Upon this stone the victim was stretched supine, and while sundry subordinate priests held his head, arms and feet, the sacrificing pontiff raised a heavy knife, laid open his bosom with one terrific blow, and tore out his heart to offer it all bleeding and palpitating to the deity in whose honour the sacrifice was performed. And here you will recognize that idea, so widely spread in the two Americas, and indeed almost everywhere amongst uncivilized peoples, that the heart is the epitome, so to speak, of the individual—his soul in some sense—so that to appropriate his heart is to appropriate his whole being.

Finally, there rose on the same platform a kind of chapel in which were enthroned the two chief deities of the Aztecs, Uitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca.[2] And here I will ask you to accompany Captain Bernal Diaz in the retinue of his chief, Fernando Cortes, to whom the king Montezuma himself had seen fit to do the honours of his "cathedral." For, as you are aware, Montezuma, divided between a rash confidence and certain apprehensions which I shall presently explain, received Cortes for a considerable time with the utmost distinction, lodged him in one of his palaces, and did everything in the world to please him. This, then, is the narrative of Bernal Diaz:[3]

"Montezuma invited us to enter a little tower, where in a kind of chamber, or hall, stood what appeared like two altars covered with rich embroidery." (What Bernal Diaz compared to altars were the two Teoicpalli (or seats of the gods), which were wooden pedestals, painted azure blue and bearing a serpent's head at each corner). . . . . "The first [idol], placed on the right, we were told represented Huichilobos, their god of war" (this was as near as Bernal Diaz could get to Uitzilopochtli), "with his face and countenance very broad, his eyes monstrous and terrible; all his body was covered with jewels, gold and pearls of various sizes. . . . . His body was girt with things like great serpents, made with gold and precious stones, and in one hand he held a bow, and arrows in the other. And another little idol who stood by him, and, as they said, was his page, carried a short lance for him, and a very rich shield of gold and jewels. And Huichilobos had his neck hung round with faces of Indians, and what seemed to be the hearts of these same Indians, made of gold, or some of them of silver, covered with blue gems; and there stood some brasiers there, containing incense made with copal and the hearts of three Indians who had been slain that same day; and they were burning, and with the smoke and incense they had made that sacrifice to him; and all the walls of this oratory were so bathed and blackened with cakes of blood, as was the very ground itself, that the whole exhaled a very foul odour.

"Carrying our eyes to the left we perceived another great mass, as high as Huichilobos. Its face was like a bear's, and its shining eyes were made of mirrors called Tezcat. Its body was covered with rich gems like that of Huichilobos, for they said that they were brothers. And this Tescatepuca" (the mutilated form under which Bernal Diaz presents Tezcatlipoca) "was the god of hell" (this is another mistake, for Tezcatlipoca was a celestial deity). . . . "His body was surrounded with figures like little imps, with tails like serpents; and the walls were so caked and the ground so saturated with blood, that the slaughter-houses of Castile do not exhale such a stench; and indeed we saw the hearts of five victims who had been slaughtered that same day. . . . . And since everything smelt of the shambles, we were impatient to escape from the foul odour and yet fouler sight."


Such was the impression made upon a Spanish soldier and a good Catholic by the sight of the two chief deities of the Mexican people. To him they were simply two abominable inventions of Satan. Let us try to go a little further below the surface.

Uitzilopochtli signifies Humming-bird to the left, from Uizilin (Humming-bird), and opochtli (to the left). The latter part of the name is probably due to the position we have just seen noticed to the left of the other great deity, Tezcatlipoca. But why Humming-bird? What can there be in common between this graceful little creature and the monstrous idol of the Aztecs? The answer is given by the American mythology, in which the Humming-bird is a divine being, the messenger of the Sun. In the Aztec language it is often called the "sun-beam" or the "sun's hair." This charming little bird, with the purple, gold and topaz sheen of its lovely plumage, as it flits amongst the flowers like a butterfly, darts out its long tongue before it to extract their juices, with a burring of its wings like the humming of bees, whence it derives its English name. Moreover, it is extremely courageous, and will engage with far larger birds than itself in defence of its nest. In the northern regions of Mexico, the humming-bird is the messenger of spring, as the swallow is with us. At the beginning of May, after a cold and dry season that has parched the soil and blighted all verdure, the atmosphere becomes pregnant with rain, the sun regains his power, and a marvellous transformation sets in. The land arrays itself, before the very eyes, with verdure and flowers, the air is filled with perfumes, the maize comes to a head, and hosts of humming-birds appear, as if to announce that the fair season has returned. We may lay it down as certain that the humming-bird was the object of a religious cultus amongst the earliest Aztecs, as the divine messenger of the Spring, like the wren amongst our own peasantry, the plover amongst the Latins, and the crow amongst many tribes of the Red-skins. It was the emissary of the Sun.

It was in this capacity, and under the law of anthropomorphism to which all the Mexican deities were subject, that the divine humming-bird, as a revealing god, the protector of the Aztec nation, took the human form more and more completely in the religious consciousness of his worshippers. And indeed the Mexican mythology gives form to this idea that the divine humming-bird (of which those on earth were but the relatives or little brothers) was a celestial man like an Aztec of the first rank, in the following legend of his incarnation.

Near to Coatepec, that is to say the Mountain of Serpents,[4] lived the pious widow Coatlicue or Coatlantona (the ultimate meaning of which is "female serpent"). One day, as she was going to the temple to worship the Sun, she saw a little tuft of brilliantly coloured feathers fall at her feet. She picked it up and placed it in her bosom to present as an offering to the Sun. But when she was about to draw it forth, she knew not what had come upon her. Soon afterwards she perceived that she was about to become a mother. Her children were so enraged that they determined to kill her, but a voice from her womb cried out to her, "Mother, have no fear, for I will save thee, to thy great honour and my own great glory." And in fact Coatlicue's children failed in their murderous attempt. In due time Uitzilopochtli was born, grasping his shield and lance, with a plume of feathers shaped like a bird's beak on his head, with humming-birds' feathers on his left leg, and his face, arms and legs barred with blue. Endowed from his birth with extraordinary strength, while still an infant he put to death those who had attempted to slay his mother, together with all who had taken their part. He gave her everything he could take from them; and after accomplishing mighty feats on behalf of the Aztecs, whom he had taken under his protection, he re-ascended to heaven, bearing his mother with him, and making her henceforth the goddess of flowers.[5]

You will be struck by the analogy between this myth and more than one Greek counterpart. There is the same method of reducing to the conditions of human life, and concentrating at a single point of time and space, a permanent or regularly recurrent and periodic natural phenomenon. Uitzilopochtli, the humming-bird, has come from the Sun with the purpose of making himself man, and he has therefore taken flesh in an Aztec woman, Coatlicue, the serpent, who is no other than the spring florescence, and therefore the Mexican Flora. It is not only amongst the Mexicans that the creeping progress of the spring vegetation, stretching along the ground towards the North, has suggested the idea of a divine serpent crawling over the earth. The Athenian myth of Erichthonius is a conception of the same order. The celestial humming-bird, then, offspring of the Sun, valiant and warlike from the day of his birth, champion of his mother, plundering and ever victorious, is the symbol instinctively seized on by the Aztec people; for it, too, had sprung from humble beginnings, had been despised and menaced by its neighbours, and had grown so marvellously in power and in wealth as to have become the invincible lord of Anahuac. Uitzilopochtli had grown with the Aztec people. He bears, amongst other surnames, that of Mextli, the warrior, whence the name of Mexico. He protects his people and ever extends the boundaries of its empire. And thus, in spite of his bearing the name of a little bird, his statue as an incarnate deity had become colossal. Yet the Aztecs did not lose the memory of his original minuteness of stature. Did you observe, in the account given by Bernal Diaz, that there stood at the feet of the huge idol another quite small one, that served, according to the Spanish Captain, as his page? This was the Uitziton, or "little humming-bird," called also the Paynalton, or the "little quick one," whose image was borne by a priest at the head of the soldiers as they charged the enemy. On the day of his festival, too, he was borne at full speed along the streets of the city. He was, therefore, the diminutive Uitzilopochtli, or, more correctly speaking, the Uitzilopochtli of the early days, the portable idol of the still wandering tribe; and in fidelity to those memories, as well as to preserve the warlike rite to the efficacy of which they attached so much value, the Aztecs had kept the small statue by the side of the great one.

To sum up: Uitzilopochtli was a derivative form or determination of the Sun, and specifically of the Sun of the fair season. He had three great annual festivals. The first fell in May, at the moment of the return of the flowering vegetation. The second was celebrated in August, when the favourable season unfolded all its beauty. The third coincided with our month of December. It was the beginning of the cold and dry season. On the day of this third festival they made a statue in Uitzilopochtli's likeness, out of dough concocted with the blood of sacrificed infants, and, after all kinds of ceremonies, a priest pierced the statue with an arrow. Uitzilopochtli would die with the verdure, the flowers and all the beauteous adornments of spring and summer. But, like Adonis, like Osiris, like Atys, and so many other solar deities, he only died to live and to return again.[6]

It was now his brother Tezcatlipoca who took the direction of the world. His name signifies "Shining Mirror." As the Sun of the cold and sterile season, he turned his impassive glance upon all the world, or gazed into the mirror of polished crystal that he held in his hand, in which all the actions of men were reflected. He was a stern god of judgment, with whose being ideas of moral retribution were associated. He was therefore much dreaded. Up to a certain point he reminds us of the Vedic Varuna. His statue was made of dark obsidian rock, and his face recalled that of the bear or tapir. Suspended to his hair, which was plaited into a tail and enclosed in a golden net, there hung an ear, which was likewise made of gold, towards which there mounted flocks of smoke in the form of tongues. These were the prayers and supplications of mortals. Maladies, famines and death, were the manifestations of Tezcatlipoca's justice. Dry as the season over which he presided, he was not easily moved. And yet he was not absolutely inexorable. The ardent prayers, the sacrifices and the supplications of his priests might avert the strokes of his wrath. But in spite of all, he was pre-eminently the god of austere law. And this is why he was regarded as the civilizing and organizing deity of the Aztecs. It was he who had established the laws that governed the people and who watched over their observance. In this capacity he made frequent journeys of inspection, like an invisible prefect of police, through the city of Mexico, to see what was going on there. Stone seats had been erected in the streets for him to rest upon on these occasions, and no mortal would have dared to occupy them. At the same time a terrible and cruel subtlety in the means he employed to accomplish his ends was attributed to him; and the legend about him, which is far less brilliant than that of his brother Uitzilopochtli, led several Europeans to believe that he was simply an ancient magician who had spread terror around him by his sorceries. All this we see exemplified in his conflicts with a third great deity whom we shall next describe. In any case we may define Tezcatlipoca as another determination of the Sun, and specifically of the winter Sun of the cold, dry, sterile season.[7]

The third great deity is Quetzalcoatl, that is to say "the feathered serpent," or "the serpent-bird;" and it is specially noteworthy, in connection with the elevated rank which he occupied in the Mexican pantheon, that he was not an Aztec deity, but one of the ancient gods of the invaded country. He was in fact a Toltec deity, and we recognize in his name, as well as in the special notes in the legend concerning him, that god of the wind whom we know already in Central America under the varying names of Cuculcan, Hurakan, Gucumatz, Votan and so forth. He is almost always a serpent, and a serpent with feathers. His temple at Mexico departed altogether from the pyramidal type that we have described. It was dome-shaped and covered. The entrance was formed by a great serpent-mouth, wide open and showing its fangs, so that the Spaniards thought it represented a gate of hell. Quetzalcoatl's priests were clothed in white, whereas the ordinary garb of the Mexican priests was black. There was something mysterious and occult about the priesthood of this deity, as though it were possessed of divine secrets or promises, the importance of which it would be dangerous to undervalue. A special aversion to human sacrifice, and especially to the frightful abuse of the practice amongst the Aztecs, was attributed to this god and his priests, in passive protest, as it were, against the sanguinary rites to which the Aztecs attributed the prosperity of their empire.

The legend of Quetzalcoatl, as the Aztecs transmitted it to the Spaniards, is a motley concatenation of euhemerized myths. Its historical basis is the continuous retreat of the Toltecs before the northern invaders, with their god Tezcatlipoca. This latter deity becomes a magician, cunning and malicious enough to get the better of the gentle Quetzalcoatl on every occasion. I regret that time will not allow me to tell in detail of the combat between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. The latter was a sovereign who lived long ago at Tulla, the northern focus of Toltec civilization. Under his sceptre men lived in great happiness and enjoyed abundance of everything. He had taught them agriculture, the use of the metals, the art of cutting stone, the means of fixing the calendar; and being opposed to the sacrifice of human victims—note this—he had advised their replacement by the drawing of blood from the tongue, the lips, the chest, the legs, &c. Tezcatlipoca succeeded by his enchantments in destroying this rule of peace and prosperity, and forced Quetzalcoatl to quit Tulla, which thereupon fell in ruins. He then pursued him into Cholula, the ancient sacred city of the Toltecs, in which he had sought refuge, and in which he had again made happiness and abundance reign. Finally, he forced him to quit the continent altogether, and embark in a mysterious vessel not far from Vera Cruz, near to the very spot where Cortes disembarked. Since then Quetzalcoatl had disappeared; "But wait!" said his priests, "for he will return." This expectation of Quetzalcoatl's return furnishes a kind of parallel to the Messianic hope, or more closely yet to the early Christian expectation of the parousia or "second coming" of the Christ. For when he returned, it would be to punish his enemies, to chastise the wicked, the oppressors and the tyrants. And that is why the Aztecs dreaded his return, and why they had not dared to proscribe his cultus, but, on the contrary, recognized it and carried it on. And if you would know the real secret of the success of Fernando Cortes in his wild enterprize—for, after all, the Mexican sovereign could easily have crushed him and his handful of men, by making a hecatomb of them before they had had time to entrench themselves and make allies—you will find it in the fact that Montezuma, whose conscience was oppressed with more crimes than one, had a very lively dread of Quetzalcoatl's return; and when he was informed that at the very point where the dreaded god had embarked, to disappear in the unknown East, strange and terrible beings had been seen to disembark, bearing with them fragments of thunderbolts, in tubes that they could discharge whenever they would—some of them having two heads and six legs, swifter of foot than the fleetest men—Montezuma could not doubt that it was Quetzalcoatl returning, and instead of sending his troops against Cortes, he preferred to negociate with him, to allow him to approach, and to receive him in his own palace. And although doubts soon asserted themselves in his mind, yet he long retained, perhaps even to the last, a superstitious dread of Cortes, that enabled the latter to secure a complete ascendancy over him. This, I repeat, was the secret of the bold Spaniard's success; nor can we ever understand the matter rightly unless we take into consideration the significance of this worship of Quetzalcoatl that the Aztecs had continued to respect, though all the while flattering themselves that their own god, Tezcatlipoca, would be able once more to protect them against his ancient adversary. Years after the conquest, Father Sahagun had still to answer the question of the natives, who asked him what he knew of the country of Quetzalcoatl.[8]

What, then, was the fundamental significance of this feathered Serpent that so pre-occupied the religious consciousness of the Aztecs?

He was not the Sun. The Sun does not disappear in the East. He was a god of the wind, as Father Sahagun perfectly well understood, but of that wind in particular that brings over the parched land of Mexico the tepid and fertilizing exhalations of the Atlantic. And this is why Tezcatlipoca, the god of the cold and dry season, rather than Uitzilopochtli, is his personal enemy. It is towards the end of the dry season that the fertilizing showers begin to fall on the eastern shores, and little by little to reach the higher lands of the interior. The flying Serpent, then, the wind that comes like a huge bird upon the air, bringing life and abundance with it, is a benevolent deity who spreads prosperity wherever he goes. But he does not always breathe over the land, and does not carry his blessed moisture everywhere. Tezcatlipoca appears. The lofty plateaux of Tulla, of Mexico and of Cholula, are the first victims of his desolating force. Quetzalcoatl withdraws ever further and further to the East, and at last disappears in the great ocean.

Such is the natural basis of the myth of Quetzalcoatl, and the justification of my remark that we find in him the pendant of those deities, serpents and birds in one, who were adored in Central America, and who answered, like Quetzalcoatl, to the idea of the Atlantic wind. He was, in truth, the ancient deity that the Nahuas or Mayas of the civilized immigrations brought with them when they settled in Anahuac and still further North. Like all the other gods of these regions, Quetzalcoatl had assumed the human shape more and more completely. We still possess, especially in the Trocadero Museum at Paris, great blocks of stone on which he is represented as a serpent covered with feathers, coiled up and sleeping till the time comes for him to wake. But there are also statues of him in human form, save that his body is surmounted by a bird's head, with the tongue projected. Now in the Mexican hieroglyphic this bird's head, with the tongue put out, is no other than the symbol of the wind. Hence, too, his names of Tohil "the hummer" or "the whisperer," Ehecatl "the breeze," Nauihehecatl "the lord of the four winds," &c. The naturalistic meaning of Quetzalcoatl, then, cannot admit of the smallest doubt.

It is probably to the more gentle and humane religious tendency which was kept alive by the priesthood of this deity, that we must attribute the attempted reform of the king of Tezcuco, Netzalhuatcoyotl (the fasting coyote), who has been called the Mexican Solomon. He was a poet and philosopher as well as king, and had no love either of idolatry or of sanguinary sacrifices. He had a great pyramidal teocalli of nine stages erected in his capital for the worship of the god of heaven, to whom he brought no offerings except flowers and perfumes. He died in 1472, and, as far as we can see, his reformation made no progress. The ever-increasing preponderance of the Aztecs was as unfavourable as possible to this humane and spiritual tendency in religion.[9] Yet one loves to dwell upon the fact, that even in the midst of a religion steeped in blood, a protest was inspired by the sentiment of humanity, linked, as it should always be, with the progress of religious thought.


We must now proceed with our review of the Mexican deities, but I must be content with indicating the most important amongst them; for without admitting, with Gomara—who registered many names and epithets belonging to one and the same divinity as indicating so many distinct beings—that their number rose to two thousand, we find that the most moderate estimate of the historians raises them to two hundred and sixty. We shall confine ourselves, then, to the most significant.

The importance of rain in the regions of Mexico, so marked in the myths we have already considered, prepares us to find amongst the great gods the figure of Tlaloc, whose name signifies "the nourisher," and who was the god of rain. He was believed to reside in the mountains, whence he sent the clouds. He was also the god of fecundity. Lightning and thunder were amongst his attributes, and his character was no more amiable than that of the Mexican deities in general. His cultus was extremely cruel. Numbers of children were sacrificed to him. His statues were cut in a greenish white stone, of the colour of water. In one hand he held a sceptre, the symbol of lightning; in the other, a thunderbolt. He was a cyclops; that is to say, he had but one eye, which shows that he must be ultimately identified as an ancient personification of the rainy sky, whose one eye is the sun. His huge mouth, garnished with crimson teeth, was always open, to signify his greed and his sanguinary tastes. His wife was Chalchihuitlicue, "the lady Chalchihuit," whose name is identical with that of a soft green jade stone that was much valued in Mexico. Her numerous offspring, the Tlalocs, probably represent the clouds. Side by side with the hideous sacrifices of which Tlaloc's festival was the occasion, we may note the grotesque ceremony in which his priests flung themselves pell-mell into a pond, imitating the action and the note of frogs. This is but one of a thousand proofs that in the rites intended to conciliate the nature-gods, it was thought well to reproduce in mimicry the actions of those creatures who were supposed to be their favourites or chosen servants. The frogs were manifestly loved by the god of the waters, and to secure his good graces his priests, as was but natural, transformed themselves into frogs likewise. It was with this cultus especially that the symbol of the Mexican cross was connected, as indicating the four points of the horizon from which the wind might blow.

Centeotl was another great deity, a kind of Mexican Ceres or Demeter. She was the goddess of Agriculture, and very specially of maize. Indeed, her name signifies "maize-goddess," being derived from centli (maize) and teotl (divine being). Sometimes, however, inasmuch as this goddess had a son who bore the same name as herself, Centeotl stands for a male deity. The female deity is often represented with a child in her arms, like a Madonna. This child, who is no other than the maize itself, grows up, becomes an adult god, and is the masculine Centeotl. The feminine Centeotl, moreover, bears many other names, such as Tonantzin (our revered mother), Cihuatcoatl (lady serpent), and very often Toci or Tocitzin (our grandmother). She was sometimes represented in the form of a frog, the symbol of the moistened earth, with a host of mouths or breasts on her body. She had also a daughter, Xilonen, the young maize-ear, corresponding to the Persephone or Kore of the Greeks. Her face was painted yellow, the colour of the maize. Her character, at least amongst the Aztecs, had nothing idyllic about it, and we shall have to return presently to the frightful sacrifices which were celebrated in her honour.

Next comes the god of Fire, Xiuhtecutli (the Lord Fire), a very ancient deity, as we see by one of his many surnames, Huehueteotl (the old god). He is represented naked, with his chin blackened, with a head-dress of green feathers, carrying on his back a kind of serpent with yellow feathers, thus combining the different fire colours. And inasmuch as he looked across a disk of gold, called "the looking-plate," we may ask whether his primitive significance was not very closely allied to that of Tezcatlipoca, the shining mirror of the cold season. Sacrifice was offered to him daily. In every house the first libation and the first morsel of bread were consecrated to him. And finally, as an instance of the astounding resemblance that is forced upon our attention between the religious development of the Old World and that of the New, only conceive that in Mexico, as in ancient Iran and other countries of Asia and Europe, the fire in every house must be extinguished on a certain day in every year, and the priest of Xiuhtecutli kindled fire anew by friction before the statue of his god. You are aware that this rite, with which so many customs and superstitions are connected, rests on the idea that Fire is a divine being, of celestial and pure origin, which is shut up in the wood, and which is contaminated in the long run by contact with men and with human affairs. Hence it follows that in order for it to retain its virtues, to continue to act as a purifier and to spread its blessings amongst men, it must be brought down anew, from time to time, from its divine source.[10]

The Aztecs also had a Venus, a goddess of Love, who bore the name of Tlazolteotl (the goddess of Sensuality).[11] At Tlascala she was known by the more elegant name of Xochiquetzal (the flowery plume). She lived in heaven, in a beautiful garden, spinning and embroidering, surrounded by dwarfs and buffoons, whom she kept for her amusement. We hear of a battle of the gods of which she was the object. Though the wife of Tlaloc, she was loved and carried off by Tezcatlipoca. This probably gives us the clue to her mythic origin. She must have been the aquatic vegetation of the marsh lands, possessed by the god of waters, till the sun dries her up and she disappears. The legend about her is not very edifying. It was she—to mention only a single feat—who prevailed over the pious hermit Yappan, when he had victoriously resisted all other temptations. After his fall he was changed into a scorpion; and that is why the scorpion, full of wrath at the memory of his fall and fleeing the daylight, is so poisonous and lives hidden under stones.[12]

We have still to mention Mixcoatl, the cloud-serpent, whose name survives to our day as the designation of water-spouts in Mexico, and who was specially worshipped by the still almost savage populations of the secluded mountain districts,—Omacatl, "the double reed," a kind of Momus, the god of good cheer, who may very well be a secondary form of Tlaloc, and who avenged himself, when defrauded of due homage, by interspersing hairs and other disagreeable objects amongst the viands,—Ixtlilton, "the brown," a sort of Esculapius, the healing god, whose priest concocted a blackish liquid that passed as an efficacious remedy for every kind of disease,—Yacatecutli, "the lord guide," the god of travellers and of commerce, whose ordinary symbol was the stick with a carved handle carried by the Mexicans when on a journey, who was sedulously worshipped by the commercial and middle classes of Mexico, and in connection with whom we may note that every Mexican, when travelling, would be careful to fix his stick in the ground every evening and pay his respectful devotions to it,[13]—and, finally, Xipe, "the bald," or "the flayed," the god of goldsmiths, probably another form of Uitzilopochtli (whose festival coincided with his), deriving his name apparently from the polishing process to which gold (no doubt regarded as belonging to the substance of the sun) had to undergo to give it the required brilliance, and to whose hideous cultus we shall have to return in our next Lecture.

I must now be brief, and will only speak further of the Tepitoton, that is to say, the "little tiny ones," minute domestic idols, the number of which was incalculable. They insensibly lower to the level of animism and fetishism that religion which, as we have seen, bears comparison in its grander aspects with the most renowned mythologies of the ancient world. I must, however, allow myself a few words on the god Mictlan, the Mexican Hades or Pluto. His name properly signifies "region of the North;" but inasmuch as the North was regarded as the country of mist, of barrenness and of death, his name easily passed into the designation of the subterranean country of the dead. The Germanic Helle has a similar history, for it was first localized in the wintry North and then carried underground. Mictlan, like Hades, was used as a name alike for the sojourn and for the god of the dead. This deity had a consort who bore divers names, and he also had at his command a number of genii or servants, called Tzitzimitles, a sort of malicious demons held in great dread by the living. Of course both Mictlan and his wives are always represented under a hideous aspect, with huge open mouths, or rather jaws, often in the act of devouring an infant.[14]

At last we have done! In the next Lecture we shall penetrate to the very heart of this singular religion, as we discuss its terrible sacrifices, its institutions, and its doctrines concerning this world and the life to come. And here, again, we shall find cause for amazement in the striking analogies it presents to the rites and institutions of other religions much nearer home. Meanwhile, observe that in examining the purely mythological portion of the subject which we have passed in review to-day, we have seen that there is not a single law manifested by the mythologies of the ancient world, which had not its parallel manifestations in Mexico before it was discovered by the Europeans. The great gods, derived from a dramatized nature—animism, with the fetishism that springs from it, occupying the basement, if I may so express myself, beneath these mythological conceptions—in the midst of all a tendency manifested from time to time towards a purer and more spiritual conception of the adorable Being—all re-appears and all is combined in Mexico, even down to something like an incarnation, and the hope of the coming of the god of justice and of goodness who will restore all things. Indeed, I know not where else one could look for so complete a résumé of what has constituted in all places, now the smallness and wretchedness, now the grandeur and nobleness, of that incomprehensible and irresistible factor of human nature which we call religion. The "eternally religious" element in man had stamped its mark upon the unknown Mexico as upon all other lands; and when at last it was discovered, evidence might have been found, had men been able to appreciate it, that there too, however frightfully misinterpreted, the Divine breath had been felt.

It is the spiritually-minded who must learn the art of discerning the spirit wherever it reveals itself; and when the horrors rise up before us of which religion has more than once in the course of history been the cause or the pretext, and we are almost tempted to ask whether this attribute of human nature has really worked more good than ill in the destinies of our race, we may remember that the same question might be asked of all the proudest attributes of our humanity. Take polity or the art of governing human societies. To what monstrous aberrations has it not given birth! Take science. Through what lamentable and woful errors has it not pursued its way! Take art. How gross were its beginnings, and how often has it served, not to elevate man, but to stimulate his vilest and most degrading passions! Yet, who would wish to live without government, science or art?

Let us apply the same test to religion. The horrors it has caused cannot weigh against the final and overmastering good which it produces; and its annals, too often written in blood, should teach us how to guide it, how to purify it from all that corrupts and debases it. We shall see at the close of our Lectures what that directing, normalizing, purifying principle is that must hold the helm of religion and guide it in its evolution. Meanwhile, let no imperfection, no repulsiveness—nay, no atrocity even—blind us to the ideal value of what we have been considering, any more than we should allow the disasters that spring from the use of fire to make us cease to rank it amongst the great blessings of our earthly life.

  1. See Torquemada, Lib. viii. cap. xx. at the end. On the Mexican temples in general, see Müller, pp. 644—646.
  2. On the great temple of Mexico and its annexes, see Waitz, IV. 148 sqq., where the scattered data of Sahagun, Acosta, Gomara, Bernal Diaz, Ixtlilxochitl, Clavigero, &c., are drawn together. See also Bancroft, II. 577—587, III. 430 sq.
  3. Op. cit. cap. xcii.
  4. Compare the German "Schlangenberg" and the old French "Guivremont."
  5. See the legend in Clavigero, Lib. vi. § 6.
  6. See Müller, pp. 602 sqq., and Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 1, 237, sqq., Lib. i. cap. i., and Lib. iii. cap. i., &c.
  7. See Clavigero, Lib. vi. § 2. Acosta, pp. 324 sqq., Lib. v. cap. ix. (pp. 353 sq. in E. G.'s translation); Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 2 sq., 241 sq., Lib. i. cap. iii., Lib. iii. cap. ii. See also Ternaux-Compans, Vol. XII. p. 18.
  8. On Quetzalcoatl, see Müller, pp. 577—590; Bancroft, Vol. III. pp. 239—287; Torquemada, Lib. vi. cap. xxiv., Lib. iii. cap. vii.; Clavigero, Lib. vi. § 4; Ixtlilxochitl in Ternaux-Compans, Vol. XII. pp. 5—8 (further, pp. 9—27 of the same volume on the Toltecs); Prescott, Bk. i. chap, iii., Bk. iv. chap, v., and elsewhere; Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 3-4, 245-6, 255—259, Lib. i. cap. v., Lib. iii. capp. iv. xii.—xiv.
  9. See Clavigero, Lib. iv. §§ 4, 15, Lib. vii. § 42; Humboldt, pp. 319-20, cf. p. 95; Prescott, Bk. i. chap. i. and elsewhere; Bancroft, Vol. V. pp. 427—429 ; Müller, pp. 526 sq.
  10. Clavigero, Lib. vi. §§ 5, 15, 34; Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 16—19, Lib. i. cap. xiii.; Bancroft, Vol. III. p. 385.
  11. See Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 10—16, Lib. i. cap. xii.
  12. See Boturini, "Idea de una nueva historia general de la America Septentrional," &c.: Madrid, 1746, pp. 63—65.
  13. Bancroft, Vol. III. pp. 403—417; Sahagun, Tom. I. pp, 22—25, 29—33, Lib. i. caps. xv. xvi. xix.
  14. Bancroft, Vol. III. pp. 396—402; Clavigero, Lib. vi. §§ 1, 5.