The Story of Mexico/Chapter 8

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There is another race of which something must be said before we begin upon the Aztecs, that branch of the Nahuatl family which took the leading part in the struggle with the Conquistadores.

Although the Mayan civilization was established outside the limits of the present Mexico, it is necessary to know something of it in connection with the other tribes who built up the civilization of Anahuac.

The Mayas are thought to have been the earliest of the Nahuatl family to migrate from their northern home. Their language differs from the other Nahua dialects, and so do their traditions, monuments, and hieroglyphics, but these differences were probably caused by the difference in time in the departure of these races from their common starting-point. The resemblance outweighs the disparity, and we can only imagine that the deviations were caused by a long separation from the original stock. Their descendants live in Yucatan, and the early monuments of the Mayas are found in that country and its neighborhood.

They are supposed to have migrated from the shores of the Atlantic to the region now the state of Chiapas, the farthest south of all the states, adjoining Guatemala, in the midst of a rich and fertile country. Their empire grew to be one of great importance, TSOM D103 Casa del Gobernador Uxmal.pngcasa del gobernador, uxmal.

so that at one time even the proud Tula was tributary to it. It extended over the greater part of Central America. Mayapan and Copan were the other chief tribes of their confederacy, of which Nachan, or Town of Serpents, was the capital or chief.

This great city was already in ruins, buried in the thick wilderness, its site and very existence forgotten before the arrival of the Conquistadores. Cortes must have marched close to it once when he was on his way to Honduras, but he probably had no notion of its existence. The ruins were discovered by chance in the middle of the eighteenth century, by a curate of the little town Palenque in the neighborhood.

In 1764, the Spanish government sent explorers to visit these ruins, and since then they have been carefully studied. The importance and extent of the buildings seem to show that the ancient city was once the capital and centre of the ancient state of Mayapan. Traces of streets extend for a length of six leagues or more, following the course of mountain streams, which doubtless furnished the inhabitants with water.

The most important building at Palenque is the Palace. It rests on a truncated pyramid about fifty feet high, of which the base measures three hundred and ten feet by two hundred and sixty. Subterranean galleries penetrated the interior of the pyramid. It is made of earth, with external faces of large slabs; steps lead up to the top, on which is the chief building, a quadrilateral of two hundred and twenty-eight feet by one hundred and eighty; the walls are from two to three feet thick, ornamented with a frieze between two double cornices, covered with painted stucco, either red, blue, black, or white. There are fourteen entrances in the eastern front, which is the TSOM D105 Statue from Palenque.pngstatue of palenque. principal one, separated by pillars ornamented with figures more than six feet in height. Over their heads are hieroglyphics which contain the key to their meaning, still hidden to us.

The inside of the palace corresponds with the outside, galleries run all round the court, and the lofty chambers are decorated with strange bas-reliefs in granite thirteen feet high or more, strange and grotesque to us, but full of meaning and expression to the race which understood them.

Over the palace rises a tower of three stories, thirty feet square at the base, decorated profusely with symbols no longer suggestive. A strange thing about the palace is that the staircases look new, the steps whole and unworn, as if the people who built it had suddenly taken flight soon after they erected their chief buildings. One other of the monuments of Palenque should be mentioned, the Temple of the Cross. It rises from a truncated pyramid, and forms a quadrilateral separated by pilasters, ornamented with hieroglyphics and human figures. The openings lead through an inside gallery to three little rooms, of which the middle one contains an altar, ornamented with a frieze. Above this altar until recently stood three marble slabs, of which one is now in the Smithsonian Institute at Washington, the central stone at the National Museum in the city of Mexico, and the third still remains at Palenque. They are six feet four inches in height, four feet wide, and six inches thick, of cream-colored stone of a fine grain. The central stone now in Mexico gives a striking representation of the Christian cross on a pedestal in the midst of a tangle of hieroglyphics, with a priestly figure, nearly life size, which in the stone still at Palenque is continued by another figure of a priest and six rows of hieroglyphics running from top to bottom. The piece at Washington is covered with similar rows of hieroglyphics, and contains ornaments to match the human figure on the left of the central stone. The startling resemblance to a cross on this tablet has excited much discussion; it is said that the presence of the emblem of the Christian faith caused it to be torn down and cast forth into the forest, which crowds around the ruins of the ancient city. But such representations of the symbol of an earlier date than the Christian era, have been found elsewhere in America. The cross was looked upon by the Mayas as the sign of the creative and fertilizing powers of nature, and has no affinity with the Christian one. Some attempts have been made to decipher the meaning of the Palenque tablets, considering TSOM D107 Tablet of cross at Palenque.pngTABLET OF CROSS AT PALENQUE.

the three pieces as a whole. The figure on the left (still at Palenque) is said to be the Sun with his grand mitre. He presents an offering in his hand, and appears to be blowing with his mouth or breathing incense. At his back are two astronomical signs, representing, one the four phases of the moon, and the other the great Period of the Sun. The figure at the right (in the museum at Mexico) is larger than the other. It stands erect with outstretched arms offering a child before the cross. This priest differs from the other in being without the sacred mask and the robe of ocelotl skin. Both figures open their lips in prayer to the deity, the cross, here united with the sign Acatl, an arrow thrust through the upper half making another smaller cross. At the right of the cross are the signs of the four seasons of the year, vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, and winter solstice. The bird above the cross is the star of the morning, and the strange figure below may be a skull, to represent the star of the evening. According to this explanation the famous tablet of Palenque, with its accidental likeness to the Christian cross, was dedicated to the Sun as the great creative power, and to the Year with its four seasons, and change of morning and evening. Palenque is by no means the only monument of the ancient people in this region. Yucatan is covered with interesting ruins, the remains of different branches of the mighty Mayan race. It can hardly be doubted, moreover, that extensive ruins lie yet hidden in the unexplored regions of the peninsula. Chichen-Itza is one of the few towns which has preserved its ancient Mayan name, from chichen, opening of a well, and Itza, one of the chief branches of Mayapan confederacy. Itza maintained its independence, after the destruction of the confederacy, for two centuries after the Conquest. It was then taken by the Spaniards and completely destroyed.

Over an extent of several miles are seen masses of rubbish, broken sculptures, overturned columns, of which nearly five hundred bases have been counted. Chichen was one of the religious centres of Yucatan, TSOM D109 Mayan Bas relief.pngMAYAN BAS-RELIEF.

which accounts for the number and magnificence of its temples. The walls, in many cases, are covered with paintings, in black, red, yellow, and white; they represent processions of warriors or priests, with black heads, strange head-dresses, and wide tunics on their shoulders. The faces on the bas-reliefs are remarkable as giving a different type from the pointed heads and retreating foreheads of those at Palenque. The heads on the Yucatan monuments as those of the present inhabitants are better developed. The sculpture is rich; the bas-reliefs give an idea of the head-dress of the natives.

A flight of steps is ornamented with a balustrade of interlaced serpents.

Chaak Mool, also known under the name of Balam, the tiger-chief, was one of three brothers who shared between them the government of Yucatan. He was married to Kinich Katmò, a woman of marvellous beauty.

Now Aak, the brother of Chaak Mool, fell in love with the fair Kinich, the wife of his brother. In order to possess her, he caused her husband to be assassinated, hoping thus to win the hand of the widow. But Kinich, far from yielding to the persuasions of Aak, remained faithful to the memory of Chaak, and out of conjugal devotion caused his statue to be made. Moreover she caused her palace to be adorned with paintings representing the chief events in the life of her departed spouse, and the sad scene of his death. In one of these paintings we may see the wicked Aak, holding in his hand three spears, to symbolize the three wounds, by means of which his brother was despatched.

The painting is accompanied by hieroglyphics, which an explorer in 1875, Dr. Le Plongeon, succeeded in deciphering far enough to learn that the tomb of Chaak Mool was to be found at a place some four hundred yards from the palace. He at once set about excavations at this spot. At first were found several bas-reliefs representing cats and birds of prey; about twenty feet lower down was an urn of stone containing ashes, and last of all the statue of a man reclining upon a slab of stone. This statue is now in the National Museum of Mexico, under the title of Chaak Mool, as if it were the image made by order of the devoted Kinich Katmò; but the type of the face, the costume, head-dress, and sandals TSOM D111 Statue of Chaak Mool.pngSTATUE OF CHAAK MOOL.

are altogether different from the usual Yucatan models, and moreover other little Chaak Mools have been found in different parts of Mexico, so that the wise are led to suppose that it represents some unknow divinity rather than a king of Yucatan.

The Spaniards found throughout Yucatan roads made for the convenience of travellers, probably to the religious centres of the country. Some of these roads are calzadas, like those of which traces exist in many parts of Mexico, dating far beyond the Spaniards. The remains of one of these were used in building the modern city of Merida in Yucatan. This highway measured from between seven and eight yards in width; it was made of blocks of stone covered with mortar, and a layer of cement about two inches thick. Solid bridges of masonry spanned the rivers of Mexico and Yucatan, of which the massive piers have been seen standing during the last century.

Such are the monuments of the Mayan people, of whom not many facts are to be disentangled from the early legends. Like the traditions of the Mexican tribes, the Mayas tell of a supernatural being, who came from the other side of the Caribbean seas, from a land of shadows. His name was Votan, in the Mayan tradition. He found a people in the extreme of barbarism living in caves, feeding upon the bloody flesh of animals they killed in hunting; he taught them many things, so that by his example, and for generations after he left them by his precepts, they advanced to high civilization. According to his instructions, the only sacrifices offered to the gods were the flowers and incense, sometimes birds and animals. Votan is described as a great warrior, leading his people to one triumph after another. Votan, it would seem, had a companion and disciple called Zamna, to whom also the inhabitants of Yucatan ascribe their ancient progress. It was he, they say, who invented hieroglyphics, and he was the first to attach names to men and things. He was buried, according to the account of the natives, at Izamal, one of the sacred towns of Yucatan, beneath three different pyramids. Under one is his right hand, the head under another, and the heart is beneath the third. A huge head carved in stone has been found at Izamal, which perhaps represents the Prophet Zamna. TSOM D113 Zamna.pngzamna.

The Mayas used copper and gold. Their weapons were slings, spears, and arrows with points made of obsidian or bone. Their warriors wore armor of well-padded cotten, their shields were round and decorated with feathers, or the skins of animals. They made boats by hollowing out the trunks of trees, large enough to hold fifty people, which they guided with great skill. Votan was regarded as a god after his death, like Quetzalcoatl, with the Toltecs. Fierce wars waged between votaries of the two as time went on. The Mayan legends and the few manuscripts preserved tell of nothing but wars and conquests, struggles and defeats. The confederation invaded by other tribes who triumphed over it declined. Their religion deteriorated, as the traditions of Votan and his precepts faded away, and the people returned to the custom of human sacrifice, as bloody and terrible with them as with the other American races.

In their monuments we can trace these evidences of their civilization; they are remarkable for number and dimension, and the taste and skill shown in their ornamentation implies a condition above that of savage tribes warring against each other to defend the necessities of mere existence. TSOM D114 Page decoration.png