The Story of Mexico/Chapter 11

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It is impossible with our present knowledge to form an estimate of the civilization of the Aztecs at their highest point. The reports given by the Spaniards at the time of the conquests are not to be relied upon, as they paint in the exaggerated colors they thought most likely to give glory to their own achievements. Unfortunately they felt called upon to destroy most of the picture-writings they found, which would have been as valuable in forming an opinion of the manners and customs of the race they depicted, as the volumes we find in European libraries are to enlighten us upon the manners and customs of contemporary races in Europe.

The Aztecs knew no alphabet, but instead of letters they used certain signs or hieroglyphics by which they wrote on every subject—religion, history, geography, poetry, feasts, famines, wars, and the arts of peace. This fashion of writing was handed down from father to son, and taught in colleges or by the priests. The artists who executed the manuscripts were treated with general consideration, and the sovereign even paid them honor. They worked on paper made of the fibre of the maguey, or on linen cloth, with a sort of pen like the stylus of the Romans. The colors were procured from vegetable dyes, in general. They had little variety of tint, but were vivid and permanent.

These paintings, of which several of the small remnant in existence of the great quantity destroyed by the Conquistadores are in the museum at Mexico, are extremely interesting, both as works of art from a point of view entirely different from our European prejudices, and also as recording events with wonderful simplicity and directness.

The one called the Wanderings of the Aztecs, is absolutely authentic, and is wholly interpreted. It is forty-eight feet long and nine inches wide done on maguey paper, all in black, with no other colors, except that the line of travel is marked in red. This painting gives the route of the Aztecs, from their departure from Aztlan until their arrival in the valley of Mexico. On an island, in the land of Aztlan, stands a teocalli, like the temples of worship in Mexico. The chronology year by year is given, and the various halts made by the wanderers, with the principal events that befell them. A short piece at the end is torn off and missing, which probably depicted the founding of Tenochtitlan.

Another painting depicts a range of mountains among which is one pouring forth smoke from its summit. On the left is a city entirely surrounded by water, with the cactus growing on the rock, which always signifies Tenochtitlan. The mountain doubtless in Popocatepetl, which by its name signifies Hill that gives Smoke. Another painting gives TSOM D145 Court of the Museum at Mexico.pngCOURT OF THE MUSEUM AT MEXICO.

the chronology of the kings of Mexico and Texcuco; it is long, stretching half across the large room of the museum in which it is exhibited.

If we only had more of these paintings, the daily life of the Aztecs would be before us, just, as we can read on the Egyptian monuments every detail of such remote living.

In the usual accounts of the religion of the Aztecs, more stress is laid upon the horror of their human sacrifice than upon its other features, which, however, deserve notice. They firmly believed in a future life. While some of the Nahuatl races imagined that after death the common people would be transformed into insects, the chiefs into birds, the Aztecs conceived of graduated stages of happiness for mankind. Warriors slain in battle were immediately to dwell in the house of the sun; less distinguished souls went to live in the various planets. But these starry houses were only temporary. For four years after the death of a relative the friends offered meat, wines, flowers, and perfumes to the dead in certain months of the year, one of which was dedicated to dead children, and the other to warriors killed in battle.

When a chief died among the Aztecs great care was taken in ornamenting the body, as if preparing it for a long journey. Several papers are presented to the corpse: one as a passport across the defile between the two mountains; one with which to avoid the great serpent; the third was to put to flight the alligator; the fourth would give a safe crossing over the eight great deserts and the eight hills. A little red-haired dog was killed, a leash put about his neck, and he was buried near the corpse. Always the little dog, for rich or poor, warrior or slave, to guide his master across the nine great torrents which every departed soul must encounter.

Domestic life, we may infer, was happy with the Aztecs. Every man was bound to marry when he reached the age of twenty years. Polygamy was not forbidden; a man could have as many wives as he could afford to support. There were no patronymic names. Mothers chose names for their children as soon as they were born; these names were generally connected with the month in which the child was born, or some circumstance connected with the event. When each boy grew up, he was given a name by the medicine man, and by an act of especial bravery he might gain a third name.

The laws against stealing and other crimes were strictly enforced, although unwritten, the penalties probably assigned in accordance with ancient customs.

The Aztecs were essentially musical, as their descendants are now. Their songs and hymns transmitted the traditions of their race, and are carefully taught in the schools. They had a sort of theatrical exhibition, in which the faces of the actors were hid with masks representing birds or animals.

The relic which gives the best testimony of the mental powers of the Aztecs is their calendar, preserved for centuries from destruction, and now built into the cathedral of the city of Mexico. It was carved in the year 1512 A.D., and brought to the ancient Tenochtitlan from the spot where it was made. When it had nearly reached its destination, it broke down the floating bridge on which it was loaded, and was precipitated into the lake. The priest superintending the moving, and many of his assistants, were drowned, but it was raised with great difficulty from the water, and brought to the great temple located by Tizoc and Ahuitzotl, where it was inaugurated with human sacrifices.

Not many years later this temple, like many others, was destroyed, and the huge calendar with other objects of heathen worship were buried in the surrounding marshes as the best way to get rid of them, by the order of the Christian priests. It lay hidden for two centuries, until the 17th of December, 1790, when the grade of the pavement in front of the cathedral was lowered, and it came to light. The Spanish Viceroy then controlling Mexican affairs allowed the commissioners of the cathedral to build it into their sacred edifice, on condition that it should be always preserved and exposed in a public place. It is now, however, considered as the property of the National Museum.

This zodiac or calendar is twelve feet in diameter, made of a piece of basalt of immense weight. It gives a clear exposition of the division of time understood by the Aztecs, into cycles, years, and days. Fifty-two years constituted a cycle, the year had three hundred and sixty-five days, with five very unlucky intercalary days, wholly devoted to human sacrifice. Each year had eighteen months of twenty days each, and these months four weeks of five days each. The days had delightful names, such as "Sea Animal," "Small Bird," "Monkey," "Rain,"; not recurring every week, but different for the twenty different days of the month. The cardinal points were named "Reed," "House," "Flint," "Rabbit," for east, west, north, and south. Thus an Aztec might say, "I am going House on Sea-Animal," which would merely mean that he was starting for the west on Monday. The months likewise had descriptive names: thus the third month, which might correspond to our March, was called "Victims flayed alive," while the more agreeable title for the sixth month, which we call July, was "Garlands of corn on the necks of idols," As their writing was by pictures instead of by combinations of letters selected from an alphabet, they could give a long name in brief space with a few adroit turns of their writing instrument.

The Mexican archæologist, Leon y Gama, considers the stone not only to be a calendar, but a solar clock, which by means of shadows cast in a certain manner gave eight intervals of the day between the rising and setting sun. He adds that the stone clearly shows the dates of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, summer and winter solstice. On the other hand, the antiquarian Chavero is of opinion that the stone could not have been used as a calendar on account of lacking certain indispensable elements for the computation of time. He considers it a gigantic votive monument to the sun, above which sacrifices were offered. Whatever was the original intention of the sculptures of this great stone, it has survived them to bear testimony to their attentive notice of the movements of the earth and heavenly bodies, of their interest in astronomy, and their accuracy in arithmetical calculation, as well as their skill in carving and design, and their power to overcome the mechanical difficulty of moving so huge a mass of stone.

The cycle of the Aztecs was a period of fifty-two years. They believed that some great catastrophe would occur at the end of one of these cycles, and therefore approached the termination of each one, at the interval of fifty-two years, with terror and dismay. On the arrival of the five unlucky days at the close of the year when the end of the cycle recurred, they abandoned themselves to despair. They broke in pieces the little images of their household gods, lighted no fires in their dwellings, and allowed the holy fires in the temples to burn out. They destroyed every thing they possessed, and tore their garments, as if there was to be no further use for earthly comforts.

On the evening of the fifth day a procession moved from the city to the top of a hill six miles south of the city. There, at midnight, just as the constellation of the Pleiades reached the zenith, a new fire was kindled by rubbing sticks over the breast of a human victim. The body of this victim was thrown to the flames which sprang up from the new-born fire. Shouts of joy and delight burst forth from the surrounding hills, the housetops, and terraces, which were crowded with the populace watching for the result. Torches lighted at the blazing pile were carried to every home, and kindled with fresh flame every hearthstone. The sun rose, the new cycle commenced, and the Aztecs felt safe for fifty-two years more.

Then came the house-cleaning. All the destroyed pots and pans were replaced by new ones. New clothes, prepared, we must fear, beforehand, took the place of the old ones. The people, gayly dressed and crowned with flowers, thronged to the temples to offer up their thanksgiving. All was joy and merriment; dances and songs were the order of the day, gifts exchanged. The last celebration of this festival was in 1506.

While the warriors of the Mexicans were engaged in ceaseless raids upon neighboring tribes, the true occupation of the people was agriculture, which in their delightful climate well repaid their toil and skill. All the inhabitants, even in the cities, cultivated the soil, except the soldiers and the great nobles. The men did all the heavy work, the women helping them by scattering seed, husking maize, and such light matters. Canals were cut through sterile lands, for they fully understood the importance of artificial irrigation, to aid the influence of their rainy season. The forests which covered the country were preserved by severe penalties. Ample granaries were provided to contain their harvests.

Such crops, etc., as were available for their lands were known to the Aztecs, and developed to their full extent. They thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed the wealth of flowers which nature scattered over the soil. Flowers were to them an important part of their religious ceremonies; their soft, brilliant, or gaudy colors had each its peculiar significance. Out of them the women wove wreaths for the head, and long festoons for decoration, heaping blossoms in greatest profusion wherever was festivity and rejoicing. In fact in the Aztec disposition is found an inheritance of gentleness and mildness, brought with them from Aztlan, shown in their consideration TSOM D152 Vase, Museum at Mexico.pngVASE. MUSEUM AT MEXICO.

for women, their industry, their taste in ornament, and their devotion to flowers. The ferocity of their religious sacrifices has nothing in common with these other traits of character. It is as if this dismal feature of their creed were picked up somewhere on the way during their long wanderings, a dark, bloody thread interwoven in the soft, tender fabric of their composition. The women were not oppressed, but ruled their homes peaceably, assisting in the lighter work of the field, and taking care of the children, preparing food, and all household requirements.

Among the Aztecs was an order of priestesses, who withdrew from the world for one or more years at the age of twelve or thirteen, and went to live shut up within the inner courts of the teocalli. Their hair was cut in a set fashion, common to all, but they were allowed to let it grow again after one cutting; they were draped in white, without any decoration or ornament, and always slept in their clothes, "in order to be ready for work in the morning." The life was one of abstinence and toil; they carried their eyes always cast down, and bore themselves with great modesty of deportment, always watched by the sharp eye of a lady-superior within the walls of their retreat, and outside by vigilant old men who stood guard by day and night. Their food was plain and sparing, only at feast-time were they allowed meat, and then because their accustomed routine was interrupted by unusual exertion. They assisted at the religious dances of these festivals, their feet and hands adorned with feathers, and their cheeks painted red. On days of penance they pricked their ears, and put the blood on their cheeks "as a religious rouge," says the account; washing it off in a particular basin destined for that purpose. The slightest variation from the path prescribed to them was punished by death. Some of the Nahuatl deities are goddesses, which shows that the sexes were not unequally reverenced. An important goddess, Coatlicue, or She of the Skirt of Serpents, has a statue in the court of the museum at Mexico, which is regarded as one of the best specimens of Aztec workmanship. Like the calendar, it was found buried in the Plaza Mayor, not far from the cathedral, doubtless tumbled there by the Spaniards when they destroyed the great teocalli. It is not beautiful according to ideas of symmetry formed from the Venus of Milo; it is strange and interesting on account of the quantity of symbols by which it is overwhelmed. Coatlicue, or Cihuatcotl, or Cihuacoatl, is the serpent woman, mother of the first human pair in the world; she is the goddess of the earth, in the night-time, after sunset. She is, therefore, the mistress of the dead. And then she is the mother of Quetzalcoatl, the god and hero of the early Nahuatl. This sounds better than it looks. The upper part is the head of a serpent, whose body is entwined with that of a woman. The skirt is a web of snakes, adorned with tassels and feathers. The figure has many hands, as a symbol of the production-giving power of the earth. The skull at the girdle shows that on her breast repose her children after death in eternal slumber.

Such were the Aztecs in 1500, after little more than a century of life in their new land. Much of their civilization, many of their customs, they must have caught from the older, longer established, refined court of the Texcucans, their neighbors at the other end of the lake, whose dynasty was much older, and whose traditions came down unimpaired from the cultivated Toltecs, whose remote ancestors, if they came from the same stem as the Aztecs and wandered to Anahuac from the same shadowy Aztlan or Huehue-Tlapallan, had yet the advantage of a couple of centuries of development, and a longer abstinence from the bloody rites of a savage religion.

The Mexicans were in some sort parvenus on the plateau. They won their way by their valor in battle, and insisted on recognition by the other tribes, by superior force or ferocity conquering to themselves a large portion of the happy land. The neighboring people made way for them, a few to be their allies; but their ferocious warfare had made them detested by those who feared them in all the surrounding country, so that these other kingdoms, republics, or sedentary races saw not unwillingly the downfall of the haughty Aztec house, even if they did not actively help its invaders.

In the end, this policy was fatal to all. Once they had gained a foothold on the plateau, the Conquistadores stopped not until the whole country was within their grasp. TSOM D155 Page decoration.png