THE ORIGINS OF MEXICAN MYTHOLOGY
LEWIS SPENSE (1874-1955) was a Scottish journalist, folklorist, occult scholar, and alternative archaeology supporter. He stands at the threshold between the scientific and the pseudoscientific, frequently crossing between both. On the more scientific side, Spense popularize Mayan and Mexican mythology, including the Popul Voh (1908), and in this article from the October 1920 Edinburgh Review, the mythology of the Aztecs and the predecessors. On the less scientific side, Spense investigated Atlantis and tried to prove in a series of books in the 1920s that Atlantis was a genuine Bronze Age civilization, one that formed the missing link between Egypt and the New World. Unfortunately, as with Ignatius Donnelly, whose work was Spense's starting point, the advent of radiocarbon dating would prove such speculation impossible.
Although political and financial conditions in Mexico frequently arouse a passing agitation in the minds of British people, the antiquities of that extraordinary land, various as Greece and mysterious as Egypt, have failed to appeal to them with the same degree of interest. We have not yet perhaps quite recovered from the amazement with which in our own day we have seen the secret gates of the East unlocked and the prodigies of Mesopotamia and the endless dynasties of the Nile emerge therefrom. Yet an archaeology, less venerable but no less notable, pleads with us for recognition from a continent so closely associated with the spirit of modernity that we can scarcely believe in its ability to present us with the credentials of respectable antiquity. American scientists, however, have in recent years successfully addressed themselves to the problems of Isthmian research, and the antiquaries of Germany and France have, in certain respects, even improved upon their endeavours. Great Britain alone remains insensible to the lure of old Mexico, and small indeed is the band of workers that she has given to this department of archaeology.
No manifestation of the life and thought of ancient Mexico so well deserves the attention of British students of antiquity as its picturesque if bizarre religion. Our position in folklore is pre-eminent; indeed we may with justice claim the reconstruction of traditional science as due to the efforts of British scholarship. As the English word 'folklore' is in world-wide use, so is the terminology of the science it denotes replete with English expressions; yet in English works which deal with traditional lore, the Mexican analogies employed are almost invariably quoted at second hand, sources of the most unsatisfactory description are drawn upon to illustrate Mexican belief, and it is obvious that the few modern treatises which have sought to explain this most involved of all mythologies are not sufficiently taken advantage of by authorities on folklore.
To those who possess even an elementary acquaintance with the study of Mexican religion this will cause no surprise, for the initial difficulties which confront even the experienced antiquary who desires to gain a working knowledge of its principles are sufficiently discouraging. In all likelihood the quest is sooner or later abandoned in despair of acquiring that fundamental information from which it is possible to proceed to a more profound knowledge of the subject. The native languages, familiarity with which is desirable, are complex and difficult of mastery. The paintings or codices which depict the gods present a riot of symbolic intricacy sufficient in itself to damp enthusiasm. Many years must be spent in the study of a system of symbolic painting, to which a specially qualified section of the Mexican priesthood dedicated itself in the full knowledge of a mythological scheme at the nature of which we can but guess. It is, above all, necessary to become thoroughly conversant with an overwhelming body of Spanish Colonial literature, which must be handled with the greatest discretion, owing to its vague, contradictory, and essentially untrustworthy character. Lastly, an acquaintance with manuscript sources, obscure and difficult to obtain, is quite as indispensable, and these indeed are among the most valuable of the adjuncts to a knowledge of Mexican belief.
By far the most eminent and successful among modern writers on Mexican mythology and ritual is Professor Eduard Seler, of Berlin, who, owing to the generosity of the Due de Loubat, has been enabled to publish monographs upon the principal Mexican hieroglyphical paintings or codices. In these he has done much for the elucidation of the involved symbolism in which the native MSS. abound, and has greatly added to our knowledge of the divine forms represented in their grotesque pages. Elaborate photogravure reproductions of these, the papyri of Mexico, have also been published, superseding the older and less accurate copies in the great collection of Lord Kingsborough. In his 'Gesammelte Abhandlungen,' too, a work quite encyclopaedic as regards its scope and aim, Professor Seler has approached almost every problem presented by Mexican archaeology. But his work might have been of greater value had he been mindful of the difficulties which the subject presents to the non-specialist reader. Indeed, the technicality and aridity of his general method render his output acceptable to few but the 'senior wranglers' of the study.
American students of ancient Mexico and Central America have almost entirely confined themselves to the examination of sites and monuments. In France, M. Beuchat has provided students with an admirable handbook in his 'Archeologie Americaine,' which, if too general in its purport and marred by a lack of linguistic knowledge, is still valuable as an elementary manual to American antiquity. The essays of Lehmann, De Jonghe, and Preuss have provided the student with translations of manuscript material hitherto closed to him, or have smoothed his way to a clearer comprehension of the difficulties connected with the Mexican calendar. The best modern English handbook on Mexican archaeology is that by Mr. T. Athol Joyce, of the British Museum; but its lack of references is a serious drawback, and it suffers from compression.
Among Americanists, it is usual to regard the entire tract occupied by Central American civilisation, which extended from the Tropic of Cancer to Nicaragua, as one and indivisible in its manifestations. But it is now clear that the type of advancement peculiar to the more northerly portion inhabited by the Nahua (Aztec and Chichimec) peoples of Mexico proper presents numerous and striking divergences from the more southerly though related Maya civilisation of Yucatan and Guatemala. Regarding the priority of these two cultures no doubt exists. The Maya was greatly the more ancient. But during the century preceding the conquest of Mexico by Cortez, it had been subjected to Nahua immigration and influences, especially as regards its religious beliefs. It is therefore necessary to exercise caution in the identification of Nahua or Mexican with Maya myths and divine forms, and with this in view, I have directed my researches more especially to an examination of the deities and ritual practices of the Mexican area, in the hope that once the fundamental beliefs of this better known region have been ascertained, the results arrived at may be applied with some measure of confidence to the obscure field of Maya belief. It seemed to me also essential, if progress were to be made, to apply a more intensive method of investigation than has hitherto been deemed profitable or desirable to the first origins of the Mexican gods, and it is especially with the results obtained by this means that I am here concerned, rather than with the conclusions of others, or a review of the whole field of Mexican religion as presently understood.
The first Nahua immigrants seem to have entered the Valley of Mexico during the eighth century of our era. They came in all probability from the north, and their art forms as well as their physical peculiarities and mythology seem to indicate a common origin with the Indian tribes who formerly inhabited British Columbia. The Azteca, a later swarm of Nahua, do not appear to have made their way into the more southerly parts of the country until the middle of the thirteenth century, or to have founded the settlement of Mexico-Tenochtitlan until the year 1376. At the period of their arrival in the valley they were a barbarous tribe of nomadic hunters, wandering from place to place in search of fresh hunting grounds, but by virtue of their superior prowess in war they succeeded in gaining the hegemony of the district surrounding Lake Tezcuco, which undoubtedly possessed a civilisation at least five hundred years old. This civilisation they assimilated so speedily and thoroughly that within the century and a quarter which intervened between the founding of Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, they had arrived at a standard of advancement which aroused no little surprise in the minds of their Castilian conquerors. With their entry into the lake district of Mexico such a change appears to have overtaken their religious beliefs as invariably occurs when a people who live by the chase adopt the settled life of agriculturists; such, for example, as altered the beliefs and customs of the Semitic conquerors of the settled Sumerian population of Mesopotamia. Many of the old deities of the hunt had perforce to assume the complexion of gods of vegetation or remain in a secondary position, and good evidence exists that a priesthood conscious of altered conditions assisted the change by the careful adaptation of existing myths to the agricultural traditions of the settled population among which they found themselves.
Among the gods of Mexico, Uitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl * have perhaps the best right to be described as 'national.' The first was indeed the original tribal deity of the Azteca, their Jahveh, who led them southward from their early home to the plateau of Anahuac, and who, if he did not altogether preserve his pre-eminence, never ceased to hold high place in the Mexican pantheon. The cult of Tezcatlipoca was probably quite as ancient, and by reason of qualities which made a strong appeal to a priesthood with a tendency to theological speculation, he ultimately gained a position which carried him far on the road to monotheistic honours. Similar attributes gave Quetzalcoatl a high place in priestly esteem, just as the wide dissemination and popularity of the myths concerning him exalted him to a natural eminence which perhaps he did not originally possess.
Uitzilopochtli, the great tribal patron deity of the Azteca of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, was described in tradition as leading them from the mythical northern country of Aztlan in the form of 'a little bird.' He is usually represented in the pictorial MSS., where his appearance is infrequent, as wearing a mantle made from humming-birds' feathers, and his face is painted in blue and yellow horizontal stripes.
Later legend spoke of him as the vindicator of his mother, a goddess of vegetation, and as slaying her detractors, his own half-brothers, while in historical times the whole business of war was arranged through the instrumentality of his oracular image, and was carried out chiefly in view of the necessity for human sacrifice which characterised his special cult. But if we examine the roots of the beliefs which cluster around him, we shall find much to convince us that he was, after the entrance of his people into the Valley of Anahuac, identified with the maguey plant, which forms so familiar an object in the Mexican landscape.
The name Uitzilopochtli is usually translated 'Humming-bird-to-the-left,' or 'Humming-bird-of-the-south,' but I believe an entirely different etymology will assist us to comprehend his character more clearly. A certain variety of the maguey plant (agave Americana) was known to the Aztecs as 'beak of the 'humming-bird,' probably because of the resemblance its long, spiky thorns (Uitstli) bear to the sharp bill of this graceful little creature, which suspends its web-like nest from the thorny leaves of the agave. A seventeenth century MS. by a native writer supplies us with the information that another of the titles by which the god was known was Magueycoatl, 'Snake of the Maguey,' while a third and more popular name for him was Mexitli, or 'Hare of the Maguey,' from which one of the districts, and later the entire city of Mexico, took its appellation. The god is also known as Uitznauatl, or 'Thorn that Speaks Oracularly,' and the maguey plant is found as an element in more than one of the hieroglyphics which pictorially represent his name.
The nature of the rites of certain of the seasonal honours paid to Uitzilopochtli assist the theory that he originally represented the maguey plant from which the ancient Mexicans brewed the octli liquor quaffed by their warriors before going into battle, and which, in its modern form of pulque, has probably not a little to do with the national tendency to frequent revolution. Friar Sahagun, one of the most erudite and trustworthy of the early colonial authorities on native customs, states in his great work, 'Historia de Nueva Espafia,' that the proprietors of the maguey plantations and those who sold the octli liquor cut their plants at the time of the movable festival of the god, in the hope that if they were tapped at a season so auspicious, the yield would prove both superior and abundant, and this, the first brew of the year, was proffered to the deity forthwith.
With these facts in view, it may not seem rash to challenge the hitherto accepted rendering of Uitzilopochtli's name. The word opochtli, while it certainly means both 'left' and 'south,' as numerous authorities state, also signifies 'wizard' as, says Torquemada, another monkish writer,' many folks believe'; for the word 'left' in Mexican, as in Latin, has the implication of 'sinister,' 'inauspicious,' 'malign,' 'uncanny,' and undoubtedly
refers in this sense to the magical or supernatural. Sahagun alludes to Uitzilopochtli as a necromancer and shape-shifter— a wizard. The oracular power too with which he was credited both in myth and ritual practice, was evidently connected with the highly intoxicating qualities of the juice of the plant he represented, and indeed there is good evidence that it was used by his ministers as a source of oracular inspiration.
For these reasons I believe the name Uitzilopochtli possessed for the Mexicans of the historical period the significance of 'Humming-bird-Wizard.' The fact that the humming-bird nests in the maguey plant and appears to issue therefrom, in all likelihood gave rise to the belief that it was the spirit of the plant. But it is not improbable that a certain amount of etymological confusion, such as is familiar to students of mythology, arose between the words uitzilinin, ‘a hummingbird,' and uitztli, 'thorn,' and that in earlier times the name may have meant' Thorny Wizard,' or ' Maguey Fetish.' References too are not wanting to octli or pulque as Uitzoctli, the thorny (or prickly) liquor — the drink that leaves its sting behind. From what has gone before, we may perhaps be justif1ed in seeing in the close connexion of plant, drink, and oracular priest or medicine man an association such as existed between the several manifestations of the oak-cult of Zeus, or between the elements to be remarked in the vine-cult of Dionysius. In Hindu myth, too, a bird-god (Garuda) is closely associated with the sacred soma drink, in such a manner as to invite analogies between his myth and that of Uitzilopochtli.
These primary characteristics notwithstanding, Uitzilopochtli in later times came to have a very different significance for the Azteca—a significance essential to the continued popularity of his cult. Thus we find him at the period of the Spanish Conquest in the possession of solar attributes and holding a position in the Mexican pantheon which, if not the most important, had still the greatest local prestige in the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, of which he was the tutelary god. How, then, can we reconcile the primitive fetish of the maguey plant with the later solar deity?
The connexion is accounted for by the fact that the sun was regarded by the peoples of Anahuac or the Valley of Mexico as the great eater of hearts and drinker of blood. These must be obtained for him by the capture of victims in war, or, it was believed, he would perish for lack of sustenance and all creation would expire with him. Uitzilopochtli as the spirit of the maguey plant was the tribal fetish of the Azteca, their eponymous chief, and therefore their natural leader in battle. His tribal leadership in war, a governance to which Mexican myth and history bear eloquent testimony, came to be associated with the idea that through his agency was obtained the necessary supply of sacrificial victims, the shedding of whose blood kept the sun alive. The god thus came to be regarded as one with the sun, and as is frequently the case in myth, deity and heavenly body became fused in the popular imagination.
As the sun is the great central source of all agricultural success, so Uitzilopochtli also came to be thought of as one of the promoters of plant growth, as is witnessed by his festivals, which synchronise with the first rainfall of the year, the growth of plant life, and the end of the fruitful season. He is thus the sun of the season of plenty, as his 'brother' Tezcatlipoca represents that of sereness and drought. An analogy may here be drawn from Egyptian mythology, in which Osiris, when referred to as god of the Nile, is regarded as the fertiliser, and Set, his brother, as the spirit of the barren desert.
Quite as humble are the beginnings of the god Tezcatlipoca, perhaps the most universally dreaded among the Mexican deities. Regarding his precise attributes nothing very definite has been arrived at by modern authorities. In my opinion the early significance of Tezcatlipoca arises out of his connexion with obsidian. This stone had an especial sanctity for the Mexicans, as it provided the sacrificial knives used by the priests. Tezcatlipoca's idol was of obsidian, and in certain of the codices he is depicted as wearing sandals of the same stone. I believe too that the net-like garment worn at times by this god is an adaptation of the mesh-bag in which the Mexican hunters carried their arrow heads, for Tezcatlipoca, in his role as the god of obsidian, was very naturally the provider of the hunter's weapons.
But another and equally important link connects Tezcatlipoca with the obsidian stone. From its matrix mirrors were manufactured, chiefly for use as scrying-stones by the naualli or wizards. Sahagun states that one variety of this stone was known to the Mexicans as tepochtli, which I would translate 'wizard stone,' or 'fetish stone,' and from which, I think, by a process of etymological confusion, the god received one of his minor names, Telpochtli, 'the youth.' The name Tezcatlipoca means 'Smoking mirror,' and Acosta states that the Mexicans called the large obsidian mirror with which he was always represented 'his glass to look in,' otherwise the scrying or divinatory stone in which he was able to witness the doings of mankind. It is possible that the 'smoke' which was said to rise from this mirror symbolised the haziness which is supposed to cloud the surface of a divinatory glass prior to the phenomenon of vision therein. For some such reason, then, Tezcatlipoca came to be regarded as the great divinatory god of Mexico. We find him also connected with the wind, and this leads to the conclusion that in the course of his development he came to be regarded as one of that class of magical stones which in some mysterious manner are considered capable of raising a tempest under the spell of the sorcerer. This notion gains added probability from the circumstance that Tezcatlipoca is none other than the original 'hurricane,' for he has been identified with Hurakan, a god of the Quiche Indians of Guatemala, from whose name the meteorological expression 'hurricane,' in use among us, has been borrowed through the agency of the old Spanish navigators.
Many aspects of Tezcatlipoca are eloquent of his boreal attributes. Thus he is invisible and capricious, the object of mistrust among the people, who saw in tempestuous weather a manifestation of his freakish bad temper. He was also known as Yoalli eecatl, or 'the Wind of Night,' and in this guise he ravined through the empty streets, threatening and terrifying the belated traveller.
In the Aztec mind, stone was symbolic of the atonement of sin. Thus Tezcatlipoca is the just avenger who punishes evil swiftly and terribly, for obsidian in the form of the sacrificial knife was the instrument of justice. The coldness of stone, its hardness and dryness, seem also to have given rise to the conception of him as a god of the Toxcatl festival in the fifth month of the year, the dry season, when the sun stood at the zenith above Tenochtitlan. Thus, as the prayers to him eloquently affirm, he was the god of drought, of sereness, and barrenness. The origin of the conceptions of him as the sun of the north and as the setting sun seem reasonably clear, as in the case of Uitzilopochtli; however, these are of secondary character. As the Mexican sun sinks in the west, its brilliant gold turns to a glassy red, reminiscent of the dull reflex of light on a surface of polished obsidian. The mirror held by Tezcatlipoca, with its fringe of brightly coloured plumes, obviously represents the sun of evening. But he is also to be thought of as the torrid and blazing orb of the dry season, and as a scorching and merciless deity.
Tezcatlipoca possessed more exalted characteristics as ' the 'breath of life,' and in these we may perhaps see an extension of his boreal significance. At the period of the Spanish Conquest his cult was so predominant in Mexico as to justify the assumption that in time it might at length have become monotheistic, overshadowing all others, as did the worship of Jahveh in Palestine.
Concerning the nature and origin of the mysterious god Quetzalcoatl, there has been much conflict of opinion. He has been identified as an apostle of well-nigh every one of the civilisations of antiquity. I do not intend to enter the arena of controversy regarding his significance, but to deal with the question in a severely practical manner and in the light of evidence rather than of theory. The Mexican myths 'concerning Quetzalcoatl as related by Sahagun, give us to understand that he was a King of the Toltecs, who are usually referred to in Nahua tradition as the great civilising race of prehistoric times, having their capital at Tollan, almost on the southern border of the present State of Hidalgo. Quetzalcoatl was a patron of the arts, mechanical and agricultural. He had wealth in abundance and provision in plenty, and in his time maize was so large in the head that a man might not carry more than one stalk in his clasped arms. Pumpkins were in circumference as great as a man is high, and the stalks of the wild amaranth grew like trees. Cotton grew in all colours—red, scarlet, yellow, violet, white, green, blue, black, grey, orange, and tawny. In the city of Tollan, where Quetzalcoatl dwelt, were many birds of rich plumage and sweet song. The servants of Quetzalcoatl were wealthy and had abundance of all things, and food was plentiful with them. Their master did penance by drawing blood from his ears, tongue, and thighs with the spines of the maguey, and by washing at midnight in a fountain. But 'sorcerers' came against Quetzalcoatl and his people the Toltecs, and from the fact that these were the Nahua gods—Tezcatlipoca, Uitzilopochtli, and Tlacauepan—we may perhaps be justified in the belief that we have here to deal with a myth which enshrines the memory of some racial conflict.
Quetzalcoatl fell sick and received a magical draught from Tezcatlipoca, which brought about an irresistible longing to leave Mexico and to return to the mythical region of Tlapallan, in the East, whence it was thought he had come originally. He was assured by Tezcatlipoca that he would return from thence rejuvenated, 'as a youth, yea, as a boy.' After a long and disastrous journey eastwards, he came at last to the Atlantic, where he gave orders that a raft of serpents should be constructed for him, and on this he put out to sea and sailed away in the direction of the land of Tlapallan. Stress is laid on the pacific nature of his character and reign, and he is described as forbidding war, disturbance, and human sacrifice.
Another form of the Quetzalcoatl myth as given by Mendieta, is in substance as follows: Tezcatlipoca let himself down from the upper regions by means of a spider's web and, coming to Tollan, engaged in a game of tlachtli (the native ball game) with Quetzalcoatl. Suddenly, while the game was in fall swing, Tezcatlipoca transformed himself into a tiger. The Toltecs who beheld this metamorphosis were panic stricken, and cast themselves pell-mell into a ravine, perishing miserably in a deep and turbulent river which flowed therein. Tezcatlipoca then chased Quetzalcoatl from place to place, driving him first to the sacred city of Cholula, and later on to his original home in Tlapallan, where he died, and where his followers burnt his body, thus inaugurating the custom of cremating the dead. Still another myth relates to his self-immolation on a funeral pyre on reaching the Atlantic coast and his consequent metamorphosis into the planet Venus. Maya legends, which refer to him as Kukulcan, Votan, or Gucumatz, present for the most part merely local differences.
Those myths concerning Quetzalcoatl which refer to him as a human hero who enters the country as an alien and, his beneficent work performed, withdraws to the place whence he came under pressure of malignant opposition, are obviously of later origin and bear the marks of priestly 'editing.' Sahagun undoubtedly refers to a more archaic idea regarding the deity when he says that he 'sweeps the ways for the Tlaloque' or rain-gods, a conception of him which has the additional merit of having been acceptable to the Mexicans themselves.
I believe that the physical phenomena to be observed in connexion with the winds which prevail on the Mexican plateau provide by far the most simple and natural explanation of the myth of the god Quetzalcoatl. From April or May to the beginning of October the trade wind blows in a north-easterly direction from the coast over the Plateau of Anahuac, immediately preceding a bounteous rainfall, thus actually 'sweeping the 'ways for the rain-gods,' and assisting vegetable growth. At the end of that period however it is invariably modified by the local monsoon, which interrupts it over wide areas, and in certain districts invades it in violent cyclonic storms, dissipating its energies and altering its course seawards. Quetzalcoatl represents the gentle trade wind which ushers in the growthmaking rains. His rule of peace, plenty, and fertility over, he comes into opposition with Tezcatlipocft, who represents the monsoon, the hurricane, who chases his rival 'from place to 'place,' ravening at him like a tiger, and at last hustling him out of the country in the direction of Tlapallan, the East.
If this simple elucidation of the original myth be accepted, it will be seen how naturally later modifications arose out of it. But before we investigate the process by which these emerged from or were added to it, it becomes necessary to deal with that part of the legend which alludes to the advent of a civilising agency upon the Mexican plateau. This speaks of the advance of a body of men from the north, by way of the river Panuco, to the Plateau of Anahuac, and precisely in the path taken by the trade wind. But it is unlikely that the myth of Quetzalcoatl's civilising mission to Tollan has any historical basis. Regarding the reality of the culture known as Toltcc there is now no difference of opinion. But admitting this, it is plain that the legends which certain writers have accepted as evidence for the actual existence of a priest-king called Quetzalcoatl are merely euhemeristic. In his guise as the gentle north-easterly trade wind that ushers in the rains we have however every reason to see in Quetzalcoatl the allegorical founder of the Toltec civilisation. Such a culture as the Toltec must undoubtedly have owed its very existence to agricultural eff1ciency. Only through the storage of large quantities of grain can the corvee system arise and architectural endeavours of any magnitude be set on foot The god, whose bountiful patronage of growth assisted the arts in this manner, seems in course of time to have been looked upon almost as the veritable human founder of the Toltec kingdom. Legends of his civilising prowess clustered around his suppositious memory and, in later times, kings or rulers were called by his name—a lucky name of happy associations—and the illusion that he once actually existed was thereby heightened. These rulers seem to have flourished in Mexico ere yet the offices of king and priest had become separate, so that it is not surprising that Quetzalcoatl was regarded as having had a priestly association with his own cult, or that the Mexican pontiffs of historical times bore his name.
From this point of view, then, Quetzalcoatl was certainly the 'founder' of the Toltec civilisation, and if it be accepted, I do not see how his myth can be regarded as having any basis in actual fact. As recorded by Sahagun, it obviously had its origin in a much older legend, which referred to a season of plenteous rain—the season during which the gentle and beneficent god of the trade wind holds sway. In later days it came to have reference not only to a season, but also to the Toltec period, 'the good old time,' to which humanity in all ages and climes has looked back with eyes of wistfulness, when conditions were notoriously better and no mouth knew want. But such a concept was obviously secondary in character. The new myth has taken on a cultural rather than a seasonal complexion. The allegory which underlies this later myth is readily disentangled. The powers of the rain-making priest-god fail him; he becomes sick, and is beguiled and defeated by Tezcatlipoca, the wind-god of a rival people, who tells him that'another old man' awaits him in TIapallan where he must undergo a process of rejuvenation. And here we seem to find a reference to the fountain of perpetual youth, the reservoir of rain and all refreshment, which Quetzalcoatl must visit if he would be cured of the ills of old age, and would renew his pluvial supplies.
The etymology of Quetzalcoatl's name is compounded of the elements quetzalli and coatl. The first denotes the bright green tail feathers of the quetzal bird, while coatl signifies 'snake,' so that the whole implies ' feathered snake.'
There is less dubiety concerning the character of Tlaloc, the rain-god proper, than that of any other Mexican deity. The representations of him in the manuscripts, the prayers offered up to him, the myths which seek to explain him, all make it clear that he is the god of rain par excellence, to whom even Quetzalcoatl, the deified rain-making priest in time became merely 'a sweeper of the ways.' The etymological derivation of his name has been frequently essayed. Tlaloc, says Seler, is a noun derived from the verb tlaloa, 'to hasten,' which in its reflexive sense means 'to shoot up,' 'to sprout,' so that the name really conveys the sense of ' He who makes things sprout,' 'He who hastens growth.' He is indeed the pluvial god of moisture, who dwells on the mountain peaks and manifests himself in the lightning and the thunder, both of which are symbolised in the serpentine folds of his countenance and its darksome hues. His progeny are the Tlaloque, who dwell in the courtyard of his mountain home, dwarfish ministers, who pour forth the rain out of the great jars ranged around its walls. 'When they beat these with the sticks they carry, 'it thunders, and when it lightens, a piece of the jug falls.' Although mythical evidence is lacking on the point, it is obvious from the serpentine characteristics of Tlaloc, that he was developed from the conception of the 'Water Provider,' the great serpent or dragon which dwells among the hills and which must be defeated by a hero or demi-god before he disgorges the floods which ensure the growth of vegetation. That he came later to be regarded as a personification of the rain is plain from his aspect and insignia. His face paint is black and blue, or dirty yellow, like the threatening cloud which holds the thunder shower. The garments he wears are splashed with nlli, rubber-gum, evidently intended to symbolise rain-spots. Indeed his robe is called the anachxechilli, or 'dripping garment,' and is frequently depicted as set with green gems, to represent the sparkling rain-drops. Few rain-gods, even the Vedic Indra himself, whom Tlaloc somewhat resembles, are so frankly symbolic of the moisture which falls from above.
Regarding the remaining members of the teeming Nahua pantheon, whom some of the old Spanish Colonial authors believe to have exceeded eleven hundred in number, brief mention must suffice. The gods and goddesses of the earth and growth are perhaps the most important. Tlazolteotl (' Goddess of Dirt'), a deity of Huaxtec origin, was the Mexican Venus Impudica. It is clear from the hymns once chanted in her honour that she is merely a personification of the maize plant, for she is alluded to as 'the yellow bloom' and 'the 'white bloom.' But she has also the characteristics of an earth goddess proper, and is spoken of as 'Heart of the Earth,' or 'Soul of the Earth.' In later times it was as a goddess of sensuality that she made her strongest appeal to the Mexican imagination. She was too the patroness of those women who died in childbed, and who, disappointed and revengeful, tormented the living in the shape of harpies or witches. In this guise she is the witch par excellence. Her son Cinteotl (' Maize God') represented the young maize. Chicomecoatl ('Seven Snake') was a prehistoric Toltec grain goddess, and was perhaps regarded as the foster-mother of the new-comer Tlazolteotl, presiding over the old grain which was used for seed, as did the younger goddess over the maize which had not yet come to fruition. Ciuacoatl ('Serpent Woman') had similar characteristics, and was probably a localised form of the same deity. Xilonen was a deification of the young, tender ear of the maize plant. Coatlicue ('Serpent Skirt') the mother of Uitzilopochtli, originally represented the earth in its dragonlike or primeval and animal form. Later she came to be thought of as the goddess of the sacred mountain of Coatepec. From it descended fertilising streams, and from it her child, in his form of the 'Sun of Morning,' arose in all the panoply of day. Xochiquetzal was the goddess of flowers, and had a mountainous significance. In historical times she was recognised as the patroness of amorous intercourse, song, dance, and frivolous amusement, a figure closely resembling the Apsaras of Hindu myth. She also presided over the weaving of brightly coloured fabrics and the making of illuminated pictorial manuscripts. Xipe was an important deity of seed time and planting, and in a secondary sense the god of the warrior's death by combat and sacrifice, because of the very definite association of the food supply with the military service by which captives were procured for sacrifice to the gods who presided over growth.
The gods of sport, amusement, and chance—Xochipilli, Macuilxochitl, and Xolotl—also partook of the character of deities of growth. Mixcoatl ('Cloud Serpent') exhibits all the characteristics of a god of the chase who has become an agricultural deity without losing his original proclivities. The gods of the octli liquor were said to number four hundred, and prospective revellers appealed to them for the remission of the after effects of intoxication. Thus 'One Rabbit' was capable of averting a mere headache, while 'Four Hundred Rabbits' must be placated if delirium or suicide were to be escaped.
The several castes and professions adored especial patron gods of their own. Thus Opochtli, the mythical inventor of the fisherman's and fowler's net, was sacrificed to by the folk who employed these implements. Omacatl was the god of physicians, Yacatecutli of merchants and jewellers, for the reason that he represented the staff of the travelling packman. Xipe received the homage of the gold beaters of Tlatelolco, because of the resemblance of the skin of a sacrificed warrior in which he was habited to an overlay of gold. Xochipilli presided over dancers and court buffoons, and Tlazolteotl over courtesans. But the secondary character of most of the forms which indicated caste patronage is plain, and that they were the developments of circumstance and environment can scarcely be gainsaid. Other and quite as important deities have been omitted from this brief catalogue, which is much more representative than embracive. But all were more or less closely associated with the great central motive which animated religion in ancient Mexico, the basic necessity which underlay the whole existence of this imposing pantheon—the ever present need for rain in a climate where its absence means agricultural ruin and consequent famine.
The myths relating to the great tribal gods help us to gain a definite impression of the character of early religious conceptions in Anahuac. The hymns to the gods are also a sure indication of the trend of popular faith, and probably retain more of the archaic spirit than the legends which, as we possess them, nearly all exhibit signs of late modification. Through the medium of these ancient chants, if faithfully and competently examined, we are able to arrive at the primal significance of Mexican religion, which first and last was nothing more than a vastly elaborated rain-cult, similar in its general tendency to that still prevalent among the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona, yet broader in outlook, of a higher complexity, and productive of a theology and an ethical system of greater sophistication and scope. The religion of the Pueblo peoples is indeed the poor and degenerate descendant of the fantastic and picturesque ritual of the Azteca, or, more probably, both systems may be referred to a common origin. Through the researches of Fewkes, Cushing, Lummis, and others, the entire ritual of this modern pluvial cult is now well known and deserves the closest attention at the hands of students of Mexican religion, as providing them with comparative and analogical material of the first importance.
The fervent prayers to Tlaloc, god of water, are eloquent of the fact that a dry year in ancient Anahuac brought with it famine and misery unspeakable. Inexpressibly touching are the petitions to this deity that he would not visit his displeasure upon the people by closing the heavenly fountains which provided them with the means of sustenance. 'O our most 'compassionate lord ... I beseech thee to look with eyes of 'pity upon the people of this city and kingdom, for the whole 'world, down to the very beasts, is in peril of destruction and 'disappearance and irremediable end ... for the ridges of the 'earth suffer sore need and anguish for lack of water ... with deep sighing and anguish of heart I cry upon all those that are gods of water, that are in the four quarters of the world . . . to come and console this poor people and to water the earth, for the eyes of all that inhabit the earth, animals as well as men, are turned towards you and their hope is set upon you.'
Deeply rooted in the Mexican mind was the belief that, unless the gods were abundantly refreshed with human blood, they would perish of hunger and old age and would be unable to undertake their hypothetical labours in connexion with the growth of the crops. The notion undoubtedly had its rise in that process of barbarous reasoning by which Mexican man had convinced himself that the amount of rainfall would be in ratio to the amount of blood shed sacrificially. Professor Seler states that 'the one was intended to bring down the other, that 'the blood which was offered was intended to bring down the 'rain upon the fields.' This, then, is the precise nature of the compact between Mexican man and his gods. 'Do ut des'; 'Give me rain and I shall give you blood.' Once this is understood the radical significance of Mexican religion is arrived at, and all the latter additions of theology and priestly invention can be looked upon as mere excrescences and ornaments upon the simple architecture of the temple of the rain-cult.
The process by which the rain-cult became amalgamated with the worship of Quetzalcoatl and also added solar and planetary characteristics to its several deities, seems reasonably clear. Quetzalcoatl, the apostle of the 'civilised' religion which already obtained in Mexico, at the coming of the Nahua, was also regarded as the inventor of the tonalamatl or Book of Fate, which is sometimes confounded with the solar calendar, but which is in reality a development of an ancient lunar seasonal count. To the divisions of this time-count the names of the gods of growth and others seem to have been applied, so that they presided over the periods of drought or plenty as their characteristics permitted. The priests of the Quetzalcoatl religion seem to have thus identified the cult of their patron deity with the aboriginal Nahua worship at an early date, and even when the lunar calendar ceased to be operative and a solar time-count prevailed, the former was retained as a divinatory or astrological book, intimately connected with the daily life of the Nahua people. With the adoption of a solar method of computing time, solar and planetary attributes gradually came to be added to the greater Mexican deities.
At the epoch of the Conquest it is abundantly clear that the Azteca had succeeded in establishing their tribal cult and religious customs over a wide area. They had also adopted into their pantheon such deities of the surrounding tribes as appealed to their imagination, or were too powerful to be ignored, and actually 'imprisoned' many others of lesser puissance, whose idols were kept in confinement in a building within the precincts of the great temple at Mexico-Tenochtitlan. We are as fully justified in speaking of a Mexican religion as we are in alluding to an Italic or a Hellenic religion, and perhaps more so than in extending the analogy to Egypt, where anything like homogeneity in either theology or popular worship appears never to have been attained.
Students of religious phenomena not infrequently show distaste for the deeper consideration of the Mexican faith, not only because of the difficulties which beset the fuller study of this interesting phase of human belief in the eternal verities, but also perhaps because of the 'diabolic' reputation which it is said to possess, and the grisly horrors to which it is thought those who examine it must perforce accustom themselves. It is certainly not the most obviously prepossessing of the world's religions; and I have thought it best to spare the reader an account of its sacrificial rites. Yet if a due allowance be made for the earnestness of its priests and people in the strict observance of a system, the hereditary burden of which no one man or generation could hope to remove, and the religion of the Azteca be viewed in a liberal and tolerant spirit, those who are sufficiently painstaking in their scrutiny of it will in time find themselves richly rewarded. Not only does it abound in valuable evidences for the enrichment of the study of religious science and tradition, but by degrees its astonishing beauty of colour and wealth of symbolic variety will appeal to the student with all the enchantment of discovery. The echoes of the sacred drum of serpent-skin reverberating from the lofty pyramid of Uitzilopochtli and passing above the mysterious city of Tenochtitlan with all the majesty of Olympic thunder, will seem not less eloquent of the soul of a vanished faith than do the memories of the choral chants of Hellas.
Source: Lewis Spense, “The Origins of Mexican Mythology,” The Edinburgh Review, October 1920, 342-360.