The Story of Mexico/Chapter 2

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Anahuac means "by the water." It is the ancient name for the great tract of land surrounding the lakes in the lofty valley of Mexico,—Chalco and Xochimilco, which are but one lake, properly speaking, the large Lake of Texcuco, and the smaller ones Zumpango and San Christobal. At first the name Anahuac was applied only to the neighborhood of the lakes, but later it came to be applied to the whole plateau.

The Conquistadores, according to their own glowing account, found upon the shores of these lakes a busy population, with all the evidences of industry and prosperity. Temples, erected for worship, containing the images of strange gods, stood in the lofty places. Their monarch lived in a palace of luxury, surrounded by his guards; he controlled a large army, which did battle for him against his enemies. His swift-footed messengers, without steam, without even horses, did his bidding even to the shores of the distant sea. Without printing, or telegraph, he received prompt information of distant events by pictures made on the spot by his special artist. Here was a civilization which had received nothing from the courts of Europe, whose forms and ceremonies, while as rigid and as grand, borrowed nothing from the traditions of the royal house of Spain.

Whence came this proud people which had conquered for itself a place in that valley of the perfect climate?

About fifty miles from the city of Mexico is a town named Tula, formerly Tollan, which means perhaps "the place of many people." A road, shaded by great ash-trees leads across the river Tula, through a narrow pass to some ruins of an ancient civilization, ruins already when the city of Montezuma, which Cortés found flourishing, arose. A building of ancient stone is still there, laid in mud and covered with hard cement of a ruddy tint, with which the floors are also covered. The largest room in the building is not more than fifteen feet square. Another building farther on, larger than the first, is called the Casa Grande; it contains about thirty small rooms, connected by stairways, as their height above the ground varies. The plaza of the little town Tula contains the portion of a column and the lower half of a colossal statue, which belong, as well as the buildings just described, to the period of the Toltecs, whose capital was the ancient Tollan. Their city was abandoned a hundred years before the Aztecs entered it, and its founders scattered. Whence came the shadowy race whose history vaguely underlies that of later Mexican races?

The great mound which since Humboldt's time has been called the pyramid of Cholula, of which every child has seen a picture in his geography, has now all the appearance of a natural hill. It is overgrown with verdure and trees; torrents of water in the rainy seasons have cut crevices in its sides, and laid bare wide spaces. A good paved road now leads to the summit, where a pretty modern church looks down upon the little town of Cholula huddled round the base of the pyramid. The church and the road leading to it are the work of the Spaniards, but examination proves the whole mound to be built by men out of earth, broken limestone, little pebbles, and small bits of lava. Sun-dried bricks were employed, of varying sizes and different make, which aids the idea that the mound was built slowly and by differing methods. On the platform at the top, which was reached by five successive terraces, Cortés found a temple, which he caused to be destroyed. The dates fixed for the erection of this pyramid vary from the seventh to the tenth century of our era. Conjecture only offers explanation of the purpose for which it was erected. Legends which the neighboring Indians preserve say that it was built in preparation for a second deluge. Another version is that men dazzled by the splendor of the scene sought to erect a tower which should reach the firmament; the heavenly powers, wroth with their audacity, destroyed the edifice and dispersed the builders. Cholula was one of the important cities of the Toltecs, but its construction is attributed to an earlier people.

Another monument of the ancient civilization is

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valley of tula

Xochicalco, seventy-five miles southwest of the city of Mexico. In the middle of a plain rises a cone-shaped height from three to four hundred feet high, whose base has an oval form two miles in circumference. Two tunnels piercing the side of the mound open towards the north; the first has been explored only eighty-two feet. The second penetrates the calcareous hill by a large gallery nine feet and a half high, with several branches in different directions. The ground is paved. The walls are supported by mason-work cemented and covered with red ochre. The principal gallery leads to a hall eighty feet long, whose ceiling is kept in place by the aid of two pilasters. In one corner of this hall is a little recess, excavated like the rest out of the solid rock, with an ogival dome of Gothic aspect.

So much for the interior. Outside are five successive terraces of mason-work sustained by walls surmounted by parapets. At the summit stand upon a broad platform the ruins of the temple for which the mound was apparently destined; it is a rectangular building constructed of blocks of porphyritic granite placed on each other without the aid of mortar, with such skill that the joinings were scarcely visible. In 1755 the temple still preserved five stories; at the top was a stone, which might have served as a seat, covered like the rest of the building with strange ornaments carved in the stone.

Works evidently for defence testify to the constant fighting which must have been waged over Anahuac. In the province of Vera Cruz, at Huatusco, there are traces of fortifications stretching towards the north. Ceutla seems to have been one of the chief points chosen for defence. The plain is covered with ruins. A forest conceals and at the same time protects several pyramids of stone bound with mortar. These pyramids are the most striking feature of this ancient architecture. The teocallis or palaces at Palenque and Copan, ruins found in Yucatan and Honduras, are erected on truncated pyramids like those of Ahahuac. They are all of one primitive type, although differing in details of material and form.

These ruins, still left to attest the power of the great vanished nations who erected them, are rapidly disappearing. The Spanish conquerors were amazed at their size and importance—so much so that in their description they often exaggerated their splendor. Some of them Cortés destroyed; whatever he spared, gradually falls away, through neglect, theft, or other ravage of time. Forests of tropical growth have hidden the wonders of Palenque from destruction. Other such places may yet exist all undiscovered; and it is probable that the researches of scientific explorers will in time bring to light much information about the builders of these monuments. Meanwhile we must again turn to conjecture, and in the absence of facts to keep it within bound, we may indulge our imagination, and play with legend.

Far away from some distant home, early in the dim traditional annals of Anahuac, men came to settle upon its plains. They found there a race of giants—strange, fierce men, of immense strength,—whose ancestors perhaps had struggled with prehistoric beasts, of which the bones lie buried deep below the present surface. This race of giants was wild and rude; they lived by hunting, and devoured raw the flesh of the game they secured with bows and arrows; they were brave, daring, and agile, but were given over to the vice of drunkenness.

We cannot stop to be very much interested in this rudimentary people, called Quinames, who have left us scarcely more than a name, and little even of legend to charm us. The pyramid of Cholula and that of Teotihuacan are ascribed to them, rather by way of pushing back these monuments to an ancient period. Their conception and execution show ambition, perhaps veneration, as well as determination and perseverance.

Whence they came, therefore, it is vain to speculate: how long they were there, what manner of men they were. A wave of life more civilized swept down upon them from the north and exterminated the whole race, so that we have nothing more to tell about them. The tribes which have the credit of destroying the giants bear the names of Xicalancas and Ulmecas. They paused a while upon the plateau, and passed on to people the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico.

Next came the Mayas, still always from the north. Although they left some traces upon Anahuac, they too moved farther on, to establish in Yucatan and the territory between Chiapas and Central America their greatly advanced civilization. Of this great family the many different branches speak dialects varying from the mother tongue, but allied to each other.

The Otomis, still with the same northern origin, spread themselves very early over the territory which is now occupied by the states of San Luis, Potosi, Guanajuato, and Querétaro, reaching Michoacan, and spreading still farther. These were a rough people who lurked among the mountains, avoiding the life of large communities. They have left no record of progressive civilization. Their descendants are still traced in the regions which they chiefly occupied, by peculiarities of dialect. Mixtecas and Zapotecas are names of other peoples who came to occupy Anahuac, but the Toltecs are the first of these ancient tribes distinguished for the advancement of their arts and civilization, of which their monuments and the results of excavation give abundant proof.

The legends of those tribes who came to Mexico over the broad path leading down from the north refer to an ancient home, of which they retained a sad, vague longing, as the Moor still dreams of the glories of Granada. They preserved the tradition of their long migrations in their hieroglyphics and pictured writings. These traditions bear a strong resemblance to each other, and the dialects of the successive races which appeared in Mexico are so similar that it is probable they all belong to the same language, which is called Nahuatl. All these races are generalized as the Nahuas.

One of the traditions relates that seven families alone were saved from the Deluge. Their descendants, after long and weary wanderings, fixed themselves at Huehue-Tlapallan (the Old, Old, Red Rock), a fertile country and agreeable to live in, near a broad and endless river, flowing from mountains far away to an ever distant sea. On the shore of the river were broad plains where cattle grazed. The mountains, with summits reaching to the heavens, were full of game. The winters were long, but the summers mild and agreeable. There the parents of the Nahuas dwelt long and happily, but at last enemies, whose attacks they had been obliged from time to time to resist, overcame them, and drove them from their homes. It was then they descended towards the south, seeking a land which should remind them of their favored home. Only when they reached the plateau of Auahuac, near the great lakes which reminded them of their mighty river, could they rest. Such legends as these, and the forms of the pyramids found in Mexico and Yucatan, lead naturally to the guess that these races were the descendants of the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley, Ohio, and Missouri. The monuments of these prehistoric men are not unlike the teocallis and pyramids of the Nahuas. The "mounds" are artificial hills of earth, constructed with mathematical regularity, round, oval, or square. They are finished at the top by platforms, destined, apparently, to religious rites. Like those in Mexico, the Mounds, in their form and the great number of them, bear evidence to the prolonged existence of the race who built them, to long years of labor, and thousands of workmen employed in their construction. Excavation has brought to light implements of war and household use, which show both taste and skill, and these objects are much alike in their general aspect, whether found in the valley of the Mississippi or of Mexico. Such conjectures are full of attraction; but they have, as yet, no solid foundation. As for the Mound Builders, their name, by which we now designate them, is but a modern label. Their own is effaced from the memory of men. Their origin is equally lost, and the time of their existence, the date of their monuments, are vanished in a vague past.

To associate, then, these Mound Builders with the early wandering tribes who descended to the plateau of Anahuac, is no help, at present, to the student of Mexican antiquity. Yet the idea is pleasing to the imagination; and it is even reason to hope that future discoveries in either region may throw light upon the early stay of the other.

Had we sure knowledge that the Mound Builders and the Nahuas were of the same race, we should still have to inquire whence came they all before they settled in the Mississippi valley, were driven out by their enemies, and migrated to the Mexican plateau? Such speculations are the pastime of the student of lost races. For him to dream of the possible homes of a set of people where traces are but faintly to be discerned, is as fascinating as building airy castles in Spain.

The theory of a submerged continent beneath the Azores, opposite the mouth of the Mediterranean, which might be the island described by Plato, Atlantis, the region where man first emerged from a condition like that of beasts to a constantly advancing state of civilization, plays a part in the fancies of those who are wondering about the origin of the Nahuatl tribes of Anahuac. The distant home of which they all preserved the legend under one name or another, one of which was Aztlan, the musical title given it by the Mexicans, was, perhaps, Atlantis, the broad and mighty realm where mankind in its childhood lived for generations in tranquillity and happiness. Huehue-Tlapallan, Aztlan, Atlantis, these names represent the universal tradition of this early home. The world before the Deluge, the Garden of Eden, the Garden of the Hesperides, the Elysian Fields, Olympus, Asgard,—all these are but different terms to express the vague vision in men's minds of a happy past. If the theory of Atlantis could be true, these were not mere visions but traditions preserving a consistent recollection of real historical events, of a populous and mighty cradle of nations which peopled the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi, the Amazon, and the Pacific coasts of South America, as well as the older world.

Atlantis, according to the story, perished in a terrible convulsion of nature, in which the whole island sank into the ocean with nearly all its inhabitants. Only a few persons escaped in ships and rafts to lands east and west of the catastrophe. Each of these separate survivors became, in the legend of his descendants, the solitary Noah or Coxcox of a tradition representing the destruction of an entire world. The Nahuatl legend helps out the theory of Atlantis to willing minds. The Noah of the Mexican tribes was Coxcox, who, with his wife Xochi-quetzal, alone escaped the deluge. They took refuge in the hollow trunk of a cypress (ahuehuete), which floated upon the water, and stopped at last on top of a mountain of Culhuacan. They had many children, but all of them were dumb. The great spirit took pity on them, and sent a dove, who hastened to teach them to speak. Fifteen of the children succeeded in grasping the power of speech, and from these the Toltecs and Aztecs are descended.

Another account describes a deluge in which men perished and were changed to fish; the earth disappeared, and the highest mountain tops were covered with water. But before this happened, one of the Nahua gods, called Tezcatlipoca, spoke to a man named Nata and his wife Nana, saying: "Do not busy yourselves any longer making pulque, but hollow out for yourselves a large boat of an ahuehuete tree, and make your home in it when you see the waters rising to the sky." The Mexican historian, Ixtlilxochitl, has conceived that after the dispersion of the human race, which succeeded the attempt to build the Tower of Babel, seven Toltecs reached America, and became the parents of that race. Thus having learned of the Tower of Babel from his Catholic instructors, Ixtlilxochitl skilfully pieces the Hebrew legend upon the Toltec fabric.

The friends of the Atlantis theory in like manner seize upon the universal fable of the deluge to weave into their tissue. It remains for every reader to decide for himself whether to regard these theories as the airy fabric of a vision, or made up out of the whole cloth.