When Hernando Cortez was on his way to Honduras, he stopped at a place called Zac Peten, or White Island, where he and his followers were very kindly received, the inhabitants even giving them various presents.
There, the Spaniards killed a number of deer in order to provide themselves with an abundant supply of dried venison. The deer were exceedingly numerous in those forests, because the natives never killed them; the historian Cogolludo says they were held sacred.
After several successive hunts, the horse of Cortez, being either hurt or exhausted, could not proceed on the journey, so its owner left it with the people of Zac Peten, telling them that he would some day return for it.
Those people had never before seen horses, and perceiving how much Cortez cared for the animal, they considered that it must be a creature gifted with intelligence. They called it Chaac Tzimin, or thunder and lightning horse, because, having seen Cortez fire from its back to kill the deer, they supposed that the horse was the cause of the report and flash which reminded them of thunder and lightning.
They decided that the Chaac tzimin should be fed on what they thought the nicest food; and accordingly offered it plenty of well-cooked flesh and fowl; also presenting to it bouquets of flowers as they were accustomed to do with their superiors.
History does not say whether the horse ate the flowers; but the fact is that so much kindness, and such overwhelming honors, resulted in his death; for the poor beast was kept a prisoner on one spot, and thus soon starved.
Those in whose charge it had been left were terrified at the idea of not being able to return it to Cortez. They therefore made an image of stone and mortar, as much like the horse as they possibly could, and of the same size. This they placed in a temple that held a thousand people, and thenceforth treated it with great reverence; so that Cortez, if he returned, might understand that his horse had not died from want of attention or consideration on their part.
About ninety years later, in 1618, two priests went to Peten Itza with the object of trying to convert the Indians to Christianity. They were accompanied by some natives of Yucatan who did all in their power to dissuade the fathers from their purpose, leading them through the roughest places they could find. On their arrival the chiefs and people received them kindly, treating them with great hospitality; only when it was suggested that they should change their religion, they said the time for that had not yet come. The fathers were allowed to go where they pleased and examine everything. They found various large temples that would each accommodate about a thousand people, and in one of them was the image of Cortez's horse, now become the most sacred of all their venerated images. It was placed in the very middle of the temple, resting upon its haunches, the fore part of the body reared so that the front limbs were straight, the hoofs touching the floor.
They called it the "thunder god," and told the priests all about it. Then Friar Juan de Orbita, the most excitable of the two fathers, mounted on the back of the horse, and, using a stone as a hammer, broke it into small pieces, scattering them over the floor of the temple, at which the Indians were so exasperated that they raised a great outcry: "Kill them! kill the white men! they have destroyed our thunder god; let them die for the injury they have done!"
The priests, instead of showing fear, knowing well the language of the natives, scolded them for their idolatry; made a long speech explaining the Christian doctrine, and showed them the crucifix, by which they gathered that they must worship the cross instead of the horse. They were so thoroughly mystified that they went quietly to their chief Canek. Seeing that he said very little, they too held their peace.
The fathers, however, could not induce anyone to become Christian; so they left the island in their canoe, taking with them handsome presents from the chiefs, who told them to return at some future time. The people pelted them with small stones after they were in the boat; then stood on the shore mimicing all they had done.
A few hours later a canoe suddenly came across that of the fathers. In it were several of the natives from Zac Peten. They had painted themselves black, were armed with bows and arrows, and had followed unseen, by another route, on purpose to kill the fathers, so that, as they said, no other white man would go to Peten to destroy things and bother them.
Those who accompanied the Spaniards, and had so earnestly advised them not to go, now used all their powers of persuasion to save their lives, saying that there was no need to kill them since they were going away. It was only due to their kind efforts that the priests were spared to tell the tale.
In the forests of Yucatan dwell many Indian families, scattered here and there, forming very small hamlets, in out-of-the-way places, to avoid being taxed or called upon for military service. They of course have few comforts; contenting themselves with corn, black beans, and red pepper.
Having no education they are not troubled by any ambition save that of keeping their liberty, and going through life with as little labor as possible. The all-important object in their existence is corn; the only work they never neglect is the cultivation of that grain. In the same field they plant beans, the vines twining around the corn stalks.
Their method of preparing the soil for seed is exactly the same as that in use by some of the people in Equatorial Africa. In the dry season, trees are felled in any chosen part of the forest, and reduced to ashes in order to enrich the thin coating of loam that covers the very stony soil. After the first showers have fallen the grain is dropped into small holes made with a pointed stick by the sower, who, with his foot, spreads over it a little earth.
While sojourning in the deserted city of Chichen Itza, we heard that some of those simple people, living not far from the ruins, had an ancient statue that they worshiped as a divinity. Investigation proved the report true.
The statue is kept in a cave, or rather, mine, that has been formed by digging out zaccab, a white earth used with lime for making mortar. It represents a man with a long beard, kneeling; his arms upraised so that the hands are on a level with the head; the hands themselves spread wide open, palms upward. On the back of the figure there is something that may have represented a musical instrument, but the natives call it buleuah, a cake made of black beans and ground corn. Perhaps it is owing to this fancy that they have made it their god of agriculture. It is not so easy to understand why they call it Zactalah (the blow, or slap of a white man). The Indians, being beardless themselves, perhaps concluded that the statue must be that of a white man; and the uplifted hands may suggest to them a readiness to strike; although the posture is one of adoration. There are several figures like this, sculptured in bas-relief on the capitals of pillars in an ancient castle at Chichen Itza. The faces are unlike those of any American race, having decidedly Assyrian features.
Zactalah is no longer white, but grimed with the smoke of many candles that its faithful worshipers burn around it. Before setting fire to the trees that lie in their future corn-field, they carry to the blackened idol, a cool beverage called Zaca; at the same time they burn incense, believing to gratify his olfactory organ, and surround him with lighted wax candles, beseeching him to make the trees burn thoroughly.
When they plant, they again go to Zactalah, to make similar offerings in order that they may obtain abundant crops, and that no destructive animals may get into the fields to uproot the tender sprouts.
All these favors having been granted, the good people are not ungrateful. As soon as the grain is ripe, before reaping the harvest, they gather the most perfect ears for Zactalah. These primitiæ are cooked and prepared in various ways; then men, women, and children, all leave the hamlet very early in the morning, and go in pilgrimage to the cave, carrying their offerings; bread and liquor for their own use; a very inferior violin and a large tunkel. This is a quaint old musical instrument; a piece of wood about three feet long and one foot in diameter, hollowed out; on one side it has a long narrow mouth; on the other, two oblong tongues that almost meet in the middle. Its mouth is placed on the ground, and the tongues, like two keys, are struck with short sticks, whose ends are covered with india-rubber to make them rebound. The sound produced is like a great rumbling in the earth, and can, when the wind is favorable, be heard five or six miles off. The word tunkel means to be worshiping, and the natives use the instrument in all their ancient ceremonies.
Having arrived at the cave of Zactalah, the women begin their devotions by removing their garments that have gathered dust on the road, replacing them by clean ones. Then kneeling before the image, beads in hand, they chant the prayers and litanies of the Romish church, the violin and tunkel accompanying their voices. What a combination of pagan and Christian worship!
The prayers are alternated with dancing, by the women only; every now and then all take a little fire-water (rum), and when they feel hungry some bread, or posole, another preparation of corn.
In this way they pass hour after hour, till the sun is low in the west; then wend their way homeward through forest paths, happy in the thought that they have faithfully performed a religious duty.
The high priest of this venerated image is a white man, his assistant being an Indian named Ku, a medicine-man.
The devotees of Zactalah, hearing that we had discovered a grand altar supported by fifteen stone images (caryatids), came to ask us if they could look at them; and having taken a particular fancy to one, begged to be allowed to carry it away.
"What for?" we asked. They replied, "We will have it in our village, build a nice shrine for it, and it shall be our patron saint; we will light the best wax candles for it, and burn plenty of copal so that it may protect us, because it is an enchanted soul."
Not believing them greatly in need of a new god, we found an excuse for refusing their request.
In fact there is not a bit less idolatry among those people now, perhaps we are safe in saying that there is more, than before Christianity was introduced among them; at least their divinities are more numerous: for now they worship images of saints, as well as other figures, firmly believing that they have power to do them good or harm; while anciently such figures but represented ideas, or served to remind them of something higher, as those in the Catholic church are intended to do.