Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sacred Numbers of the Aztec and Maya

Sacred Numbers of the Aztec and Maya

The Catholic missionaries found it was no new object of adoration to the red race, and were in doubt whether to ascribe the fact to the pious labors of Saint Thomas or the sacrilegious subtlety of Satan. It was the central object in the great temple of Cozumel, and is still preserved on the bas-reliefs of the ruined city of Palenque. From time immemorial it had received the prayers and sacrifices of the Aztecs and Toltecs, and was suspended as an august emblem from the walls of temples in Popoyan and Cundinamarca. In the Mexican tongue it bore the significant and worthy name “Tree of Our Life,” or “Tree of our Flesh” (Tonacaquahuitl). It represented the god of rains and of health, and this was everywhere its simple meaning. “Those of Yucatan,” say the chroniclers, “prayed to the cross as the god of rains when they needed water.” The Aztec goddess of rains bore one in her hand, and at the feast celebrated to her honor in the early spring victims were nailed to a cross and shot with arrows. Quetzalcoatl, god of[96] the winds, bore as his sign of office “a mace like the cross of a bishop;” his robe was covered with them strown like flowers, and its adoration was throughout connected with his worship.96-1 When the Muyscas would sacrifice to the goddess of waters they extended cords across the tranquil depths of some lake, thus forming a gigantic cross, and at their point of intersection threw in their offerings of gold, emeralds, and precious oils.96-2 The arms of the cross were designed to point to the cardinal points and represent the four winds, the rain bringers. To confirm this explanation, let us have recourse to the simpler ceremonies of the less cultivated tribes, and see the transparent meaning of the symbol as they employed it.

The Haitians were probably relatives of the Mayas of Yucatan. Certainly the latter shared their ancestral legends, for in an ancient manuscript found by Mr. Stephens during his travels, it appears they looked back to four parents or leaders called the Tutul Xiu. But, indeed, this was a trait of all the civilized nations of Central America and Mexico. An author who would be very unwilling to admit any mythical interpretation of the coincidence, has adverted to it in tones of astonishment: “In all the Aztec and Toltec histories there are four characters who constantly reappear; either as priests or envoys of the gods, or of hidden and disguised majesty; or as guides and chieftains of tribes during their migrations; or as kings and rulers of monarchies after their foundation; and even to the time of the conquest, there are always four princes who compose the supreme government, whether in Guatemala, or in Mexico.”79-2 This fourfold division points not to a common history, but to a common nature. The ancient heroes[80] and demigods, who, four in number, figure in all these antique traditions, were not men of flesh and blood, but the invisible currents of air who brought the fertilizing showers.

They corresponded to the four gods Bacab, who in the Yucatecan mythology were supposed to stand one at each corner of the world, supporting, like gigantic caryatides, the overhanging firmament. When at the general deluge all other gods and men were swallowed by the waters they alone escaped to people it anew. These four, known by the names of Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac, represented respectively the east, north, west, and south, and as in Oriental symbolism, so here each quarter of the compass was distinguished by a color, the east by yellow, the south by red, the west by black, and the north by white. The names of these mysterious personages, employed somewhat as we do the Dominical letters, adjusted the calendar of the Mayas, and by their propitious or portentous combinations was arranged their system of judicial astrology. They were the gods of rain, and under the title Chac, the Red Ones, were the chief ministers of the highest power. As such they were represented in the religious ceremonies by four old men, constant attendants on the high priest in his official functions.80-1 In this most civilized branch of
[81] the red race, as everywhere else, we thus find four mythological characters prominent beyond all others, giving a peculiar physiognomy to the national legends, arts, and sciences, and in them once more we recognize by signs infallible, personifications of the four cardinal points and the four winds.

They rarely lose altogether their true character. The Quiché legends tell us that the four men who were first created by the Heart of Heaven, Hurakan, the Air in Motion, were infinitely keen of eye and swift of foot, that “they measured and saw all that exists at the four corners and the four angles of the sky and the earth;” that they did not fulfil the design of their maker “to bring forth and produce when the season of harvest was near,” until he blew into their eyes a cloud, “until their faces were obscured as when one breathes on a mirror.” Then he gave them as wives the four mothers of our species, whose names were Falling Water, Beautiful Water, Water of Serpents, and Water of Birds.81-1 Truly he who can see aught but a transparent myth in this recital, is a realist that would astonish Euhemerus himself.

There is in these Aztec legends a quaternion besides this of the first men, one that bears marks of a profound contemplation on the course of nature, one
[82] that answers to the former as the heavenly phase of the earthly conception. It is seen in the four personages, or perhaps we should say modes of action, that make up the one Supreme Cause of All, Hurakan, the breath, the wind, the Divine Spirit. They are He who creates, He who gives Form, He who gives Life, and He who reproduces.82-1 This acute and extraordinary analysis of the origin and laws of organic life, clothed under the ancient belief in the action of the winds, reveals a depth of thought for which we were hardly prepared, and is perhaps the single instance of anything like metaphysics among the red race. It is clearly visible in the earlier portions of the legends of the Quichés, and is the more surely of native origin as it has been quite lost on both their translators.

Go where we will, the same story meets us. The empire of the Incas was attributed in the sacred chants of the Amautas, the priests assigned to take charge of the records, to four brothers and their wives. These mythical civilizers are said to have emerged from a cave called Pacari tampu, which may mean “the House of Subsistence,” reminding us of the four heroes who in Aztec legend set forth to people the world from Tonacatepec, the mountain of our
[83] subsistence; or again it may mean—for like many of these mythical names it seems to have been designedly chosen to bear a double construction—the Lodgings of the Dawn, recalling another Aztec legend which points for the birthplace of the race to Tula in the distant orient. The cave itself suggests to the classical reader that of Eolus, or may be paralleled with that in which the Iroquois fabled the winds were imprisoned by theirlord.83-1 These brothers were of no common kin. Their voices could shake the earth and their hands heap up mountains. Like the thunder god, they stood on the hills and hurled their sling-stones to the four corners of the earth. When one was overpowered he fled upward to the heaven or was turned into stone, and it was by their aid and counsel that the savages who possessed the land renounced their barbarous habits and commenced to till the soil. There can be no doubt but that this in turn is but another transformation of the Protean myth we have so long pursued.83-2

There are traces of the same legend among many other tribes of the continent, but the trustworthy reports we have of them are too scanty to permit analysis. Enough that they are mentioned in a note, for it is every way likely that could we resolve their meaning they too would carry us back to the four winds.83-3

[84]Let no one suppose, however, that this was the only myth of the origin of man. Far from it. It was but one of many, for, as I shall hereafter attempt to show, the laws that governed the formations of such myths not only allowed but enjoined great divergence of form. Equally far was it from being the only image which the inventive fancy hit upon to express the action of the winds as the rain bringers. They too were many, but may all be included in a twofold division, either as the winds were supposed to flow in from the corners of the earth or outward from its central point. Thus they are spoken of under such[85] figures as four tortoises at the angles of the earthly plane who vomit forth the rains,85-1 or four gigantic caryatides who sustain the heavens and blow the winds from their capacious lungs,85-2 or more frequently as four rivers flowing from the broken calabash on high, as the Haitians, draining the waters of the primitive world,85-3 as four animals who bring from heaven the maize,85-4 as four messengers whom the god of air sends forth, or under a coarser trope as the spittle he ejects toward the cardinal points which is straightway transformed into wild rice, tobacco, and maize.85-5

Constantly from the palace of the lord of the world, seated on the high hill of heaven, blow four winds, pour four streams, refreshing and fecundating the earth. Therefore, in the myths of ancient Iran there is mention of a celestial fountain, Arduisur, the virgin daughter of Ormuzd, whence four all nourishing rivers roll their waves toward the cardinal points; therefore the Thibetans believe that on the sacred mountain Himavata grows the tree of life Zampu, from whose foot once more flow the waters of life in four streams to the four quarters of the world; and therefore it is that the same tale is told by the Chinese of the mountain Kouantun, by the Brahmins of Mount Meru, and by the Parsees of Mount Albors in the Caucasus.85-6 Each nation called
[86] their sacred mountain “the navel of the earth;” for not only was it the supposed centre of the habitable world, but through it, as the fœtus through the umbilical cord, the earth drew her increase. Beyond all other spots were they accounted fertile, scenes of joyous plaisance, of repose, and eternal youth; there rippled the waters of health, there blossomed the tree of life; they were fit trysting spots of gods and men. Hence came the tales of the terrestrial paradise, the rose garden of Feridun, the Eden gardens of the world. The name shows the origin, for paradise (in Sanscrit, para desa) means literally high land. There, in the unanimous opinion of the Orient, dwelt once in unalloyed delight the first of men; thence driven by untoward fate, no more anywhere could they find the path thither. Some thought that in the north among the fortunate Hyperboreans, others that in the mountains of the moon where dwelt the long lived Ethiopians, and others again that in the furthest east, underneath the dawn, was situate the seat of pristine happiness; but many were of opinion that somewhere in the western sea, beyond the pillars of Hercules and the waters of the Outer Ocean, lay the garden of the Hesperides, the Islands of the Blessed, the earthly Elysion.

It is not without design that I recall this early dream of the religious fancy. When Christopher Columbus, fired by the hope of discovering this terrestrial paradise, broke the enchantment of the cloudy sea and found a new world, it was but to light
[87] upon the same race of men, deluding themselves with the same hope of earthly joys, the same fiction of a long lost garden of their youth. They told him that still to the west, amid the mountains of Paria, was a spot whence flowed mighty streams over all lands, and which in sooth was the spot he sought;87-1 and when that baseless fabric had vanished, there still remained the fabled island of Boiuca, or Bimini, hundreds of leagues north of Hispaniola, whose glebe was watered by a fountain of such noble virtue as to restore youth and vigor to the worn out and the aged.87-2 This was no fiction of the natives to rid themselves of burdensome guests. Long before the white man approached their shores, families had started from Cuba, Yucatan, and Honduras in search of these renovating waters, and not returning, were supposed by their kindred to have been detained by the delights of that enchanted land, and to be revelling in its seductive joys, forgetful of former ties.87-3