The Myths of Mexico and Peru/Chapter IV
CHAPTER IV: THE MAYA RACE
IT was to the Maya—the people who occupied the territory between the isthmus of Tehuantepec and Nicaragua—that the civilisation of Central America owed most. The language they spoke was quite distinct from the Nahuatl spoken by the Nahua of Mexico, and in many respects their customs and habits were widely different from those of the people of Anahuac. It will be remembered that the latter were the heirs of an older civilisation, that, indeed, they had entered the valley of Mexico as savages, and that practically all they knew of the arts of culture was taught them by the remnants of the people whom they dispossessed. It was not thus with the Maya. Their arts and industries were of their own invention, and bore the stamp of an origin of considerable antiquity. They were, indeed, the supreme intellectual race of America, and on their coming into contact with the Nahua that people assimilated sufficient of their culture to raise them several grades in the scale of civilisation.
Were the Maya Toltecs?
It has already been stated that many antiquarians see in the Maya those Toltecs who because of the inroads of barbarous tribes quitted their native land of Anahuac and journeyed southward to seek a new home in Chiapas and Yucatan. It would be idle to attempt to uphold or refute such a theory in the absolute dearth of positive evidence for or against it. The architectural remains of the older race of Anahuac do not bear any striking likeness to Maya forms, and if the mythologies of the two peoples are in some particulars alike, that may well be accounted for by their mutual adoption of deities and religious customs. On the other hand, it is distinctly noteworthy that the cult of the god Quetzalcoatl, which was regarded in Mexico as of alien origin, had a considerable vogue among the Maya and their allied races.
The Maya Kingdom
On the arrival of the Spaniards (after the celebrated march of Cortés from Mexico to Central America) the Maya were divided into a number of subsidiary states which remind us somewhat of the numerous little kingdoms of Palestine. That these had hived off from an original and considerably greater state there is good evidence to show, but internal dissension had played havoc with the polity of the central government of this empire, the disintegration of which had occurred at a remote period. In the semi-historical legends of this people we catch glimpses of a great kingdom, occasionally alluded to as the "Kingdom of the Great Snake," or the empire of Xibalba, realms which have been identified with the ruined city-centres of Palenque and Mitla. These identifications must be regarded with caution, but the work of excavation will doubtless sooner or later assist theorists in coming to conclusions which will admit of no doubt. The sphere of Maya civilisation and influence is pretty well marked, and embraces the peninsula of Yucatan, Chiapas, to the isthmus of Tehuantepec on the north, and the whole of Guatemala to the boundaries of the present republic of San Salvador. The true nucleus of Maya civilisation, however, must be looked for in that part of Chiapas which skirts the banks of the Usumacinta river and in the valleys of its tributaries. Here Maya art and architecture reached a height of splendour unknown elsewhere, and in this district, too, the strange Maya system of writing had its most skilful exponents. Although the arts and industries of the several districts inhabited by people of Maya race exhibited many superficial differences, these are so small as to make us certain of the fact that the various areas inhabited by Maya stock had all drawn their inspiration toward civilisation from one common nucleus, and had equally passed through a uniform civilisation and drawn sap from an original culture-centre.
The Maya Dialects
Perhaps the most effectual method of distinguishing the various branches of the Maya people from one another consists in dividing them into linguistic groups. The various dialects spoken by the folk of Maya origin, although they exhibit some considerable difference, yet display strongly that affinity of construction and resemblance in root which go to prove that they all emanate from one common mother-tongue. In Chiapas the Maya tongue itself is the current dialect, whilst in Guatemala no less than twenty-four dialects are in use, the principal of which are the Quiche, or Kiche, the Kakchiquel, the Zutugil, Coxoh Choi, and Pipil. These dialects and the folk who speak them are sufficient to engage our attention, as in them are enshrined the most remarkable myths and legends of the race, and by the men who used them were the greatest acts in Maya history achieved.
Whence Came the Maya?
Whence came these folk, then, who raised a civilisation by no means inferior to that of ancient Egypt, which, if it had had scope, would have rivalled in its achievements the glory of old Assyria? We cannot tell. The mystery of its entrance into the land is as deep as the mystery of the ancient forests which now bury the remnants of its mighty monuments and enclose its temples in impenetrable gloom. Generations of antiquarians have attempted to trace the origin of this race to Egypt, Phœnicia, China, Burma. But the manifest traces of indigenous American origin are present in all its works, and the writers who have beheld in these likenesses to the art of Asiatic or African peoples have been grievously misled by superficial resemblances which could not have betrayed any one who had studied Maya affinities deeply.
Civilisation of the Maya
At the risk of repetition it is essential to point out that civilisation, which was a newly acquired thing with the Nahua peoples, was not so with the Maya. They were indisputably an older race, possessing institutions which bore the marks of generations of use, whereas the Nahua had only too obviously just entered into their heritage of law and order. When we first catch sight of the Maya kingdoms they are in the process of disintegration. Such strong young blood as the virile folk of Anahuac possessed did not flow in the veins of the people of Yucatan and Guatemala. They were to the Nahua much as the ancient Assyrians were to the hosts of Israel at the entrance of the latter into national existence. That there was a substratum of ethnical and cultural relationship, however, it would be impossible to deny. The institutions, architecture, habits, even the racial cast of thought of the two peoples, bore such a general resemblance as to show that many affinities of blood and cultural relationship existed between them. But it will not do to insist too strongly upon these. It may be argued with great probability that these relationships and likenesses exist because of the influence of Maya civilisation upon Mexican alone, or from the inheritance by both Mexican and Maya people of a still older culture of which we are ignorant, and the proofs of which lie buried below the forests of Guatemala or the sands of Yucatan.
The influence of the Maya upon the Nahua was a process of exceeding slowness. The peoples who divided them one from another were themselves benefited by carrying Maya culture into Anahuac, or rather it might be said that they constituted a sort of filter through which the southern civilisation reached the northern. These peoples were the Zapotecs, the Mixtecs, and the Kuikatecs, by far the most important of whom were the first-mentioned. They partook of the nature and civilisation of both races, and were in effect a border people who took from and gave to both Maya and Nahua, much as the Jews absorbed and disseminated the cultures of Egypt and Assyria. They were, however, of Nahua race, but their; speech bears the strongest marks of having borrowed extensively from the Maya vocabulary. For many generations these people wandered in a nomadic condition from Maya to Nahua territory, thus absorbing the customs, speech, and mythology of each.
But we should be wrong if we thought that the Maya had never attempted to expand, and had never sought new homes for their surplus population. That they had is proved by an outlying tribe of Maya, the Huasteca, having settled at the mouth of the Panuco river, on the north coast of Mexico. The presence of this curious ethnological island has of course given rise to all sorts of queer theories concerning Toltec relationship, whereas it simply intimates that before the era of Nahua expansion the Maya had attempted to colonise the country to the north of their territories, but that their efforts in this direction had been cut short by the influx of savage Nahua, against whom they found themselves unable to contend.
The Type of Maya Civilisation
Did the civilisation of the Maya differ, then, in type from that of the Nahua, or was it merely a larger expression of that in vogue in Anahuac? We may take it that the Nahua civilisation characterised the culture of Central America in its youth, whilst that of the Maya displayed it in its bloom, and perhaps in its senility. The difference was neither essential nor radical, but may be said to have arisen for the most part from climatic and kindred causes. The climate of Anahuac is dry and temperate, that of Yucatan and Guatemala is tropical, and we shall find even such religious conceptions of the two peoples as were drawn from a common source varying from this very cause, and coloured by differences in temperature and rainfall.
Before entering upon a consideration of the art, architecture, or mythology of this strange and highly interesting people it will be necessary to provide the reader with a brief sketch of their history. Such notices of this as exist in English are few, and their value doubtful. For the earlier history of the people of Maya stock we depend almost wholly upon tradition and architectural remains. The net result of the evidence wrung from these is that the Maya civilisation was one and homogeneous, and that all the separate states must have at one period passed through a uniform condition of culture, to which they were all equally debtors, and that this is sufficient ground for the belief that all were at one time beneath the sway of one central power. For the later history we possess the writings of the Spanish fathers, but not in such profusion as in the case of Mexico. In fact the trust-worthy original authors who deal with Maya history can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. We are further confused in perusing these, and, indeed, throughout the study of Maya history, by discovering that many of the sites of Maya cities are designated by Nahua names. This is due to the fact that the Spanish conquerors were guided in their conquest of the Maya territories by Nahua, who naturally applied Nahuatlac designations to those sites of which the Spaniards asked the names. These appellations clung to the places in question; hence the confusion, and the blundering theories which would read in these place-names relics of Aztec conquest.
The Nucleus of Maya Power
As has been said, the nucleus of Maya power and culture is probably to be found in that part of Chiapas which slopes down from the steep Cordilleras. Here the ruined sites of Palenque, Piedras Negras, and Ocosingo are eloquent of that opulence of imagination and loftiness of conception which go hand in hand with an advanced culture. The temples and palaces of this region bear the stamp of a dignity and consciousness of metropolitan power which are scarcely to be mistaken, so broad, so free is their architectural conception, so full to overflowing the display of the desire to surpass. But upon the necessities of religion and central organisation alone was this architectural artistry lavished. Its dignities were not profaned by its application to mere domestic uses, for, unless what were obviously palaces are excepted, not a single example of Maya domestic building has survived. This is of course accounted for by the circumstance that the people were sharply divided into the aristocratic and labouring classes, the first of which was closely identified with religion or kingship, and was housed in the ecclesiastical or royal buildings, whilst those of less exalted rank were perforce content with the shelter afforded by a hut built of perishable materials, the traces of which have long since passed away. The temples were, in fact, the nuclei of the towns, the centres round which the Maya communities were grouped, much in the same manner as the cities of Europe in the Middle Ages clustered and grew around the shadow of some vast cathedral or sheltering stronghold.
Early Race Movements
We shall leave the consideration of Maya tradition until we come to speak of Maya myth proper, and attempt to glean from the chaos of legend some veritable facts connected with Maya history. According to a manuscript of Kuikatec origin recently discovered, it is probable that a Nahua invasion of the Maya states of Chiapas and Tabasco took place about the ninth century of our era, and we must for the present regard that as the starting-point of Maya history. The south-western portions of the Maya territory were agitated about the same time by race movements, which turned northward toward Tehuantepec, and, flowing through Guatemala, came to rest in Acalan, on the borders of Yucatan, retarded, probably, by the inhospitable and waterless condition of that country. This Nahua invasion probably had the effect of driving the more peaceful Maya from their northerly settlements and forcing them farther south. Indeed, evidence is not wanting to show that the warlike Nahua pursued the pacific Maya into their new retreats, and for a space left them but little peace. This struggle it was which finally resulted in the breaking up of the Maya civilisation, which even at that relatively remote period had reached its apogee, its several races separating into numerous city-states, which bore a close political resemblance to those of Italy on the downfall of Rome. At this period, probably, began the cleavage between the Maya of Yucatan and those of Guatemala, which finally resolved itself into such differences of speech, faith, and architecture as almost to constitute them different peoples.
The Settlement of Yucatan
As the Celts of Wales and Scotland were driven into the less hospitable regions of their respective countries by the inroads of the Saxons, so was one branch of the Maya forced to seek shelter in the almost desert wastes of Yucatan. There can be no doubt that the Maya did not take to this barren and waterless land of their own accord. Thrifty and possessed of high agricultural attainments, this people would view with concern a removal to a sphere so forbidding after the rich and easily developed country they had inhabited for generations. But the inexorable Nahua were behind, and they were a peaceful folk, unused to the horrors of savage warfare. So, taking their courage in both hands, they wandered into the desert. Everything points to a late occupation of Yucatan by the Maya, and architectural effort exhibits deterioration, evidenced in a high conventionality of design and excess of ornamentation. Evidences of Nahua influence also are not wanting, a fact which is eloquent of the later period of contact which is known to have occurred between the peoples, and which alone is almost sufficient to fix the date of the settlement of the Maya in Yucatan. It must not be thought that the Maya in Yucatan formed one homogeneous state recognising a central authority. On the contrary, as is often the case with colonists, the several Maya bands of immigrants formed themselves into different states or kingdoms, each having its own separate traditions. It is thus a matter of the highest difficulty to so collate and criticise these traditions as to construct a history of the Maya race in Yucatan. As may be supposed, we find the various city-sites founded by divine beings who play a more or less important part in the Maya pantheon. Kukulcan, for example, is the first king of Mayapan, whilst Itzamna figures as the founder of the state of Itzamal. The gods were the spiritual leaders of these bands of Maya, just as Jehovah was the spiritual leader and guide of the Israelites in the desert. One is therefore not surprised to find in the Popol Vuh, the saga of the Kiche-Maya of Guatemala, that the god Tohil (The Rumbler) guided them to the site of the first Kiche city. Some writers on the subject appear to think that the incidents in such migration myths, especially the tutelage and guidance of the tribes by gods and the descriptions of desert scenery which they contain, suffice to stamp them as mere native versions of the Book of Exodus, or at the best myths sophisticated by missionary influence. The truth is that the conditions of migration undergone by the Maya were similar to those described in the Scriptures, and by no means merely reflect the Bible story, as short-sighted collators of both aver.
The Septs of Yucatan
The priest-kings of Mayapan, who claimed descent from Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl, soon raised their state into a position of prominence among the surrounding cities. Those who had founded Chichen-Itza, and who were known as Itzaes, were, on the other hand, a caste of warriors who do not appear to have cherished the priestly function with such assiduity. The rulers of the Itzaes, who were known as the Tutul Xius, seem to have come, according to their traditions, from the western Maya states, perhaps from Nonohualco in Tabasco. Arriving from thence at the southern extremity of Yucatan, they founded the city of Ziyan Caan, on Lake Bacalar, which had a period of prosperity for at least a couple of generations. At the expiry of that period for some unaccountable reason they migrated northward, perhaps because at that particular time the incidence of power was shifting toward Northern Yucatan, and took up their abode in Chichen-Itza, eventually the sacred city of the Maya, which they founded.
But they were not destined to remain undisturbed in their new sphere. The Cocomes of Mayapan, when at the height of their power, viewed with disfavour the settlement of the Tutul Xius. After it had flourished for a period of about 120 years it was overthrown by the Cocomes, who resolved it into a dependency, permitting the governors and a certain number of the people to depart elsewhere.
Flight of the Tutul Xius
Thus expelled, the Tutul Xius fled southward, whence they had originally come, and settled in Potonchan or Champoton, where they reigned for nearly 300 years. From this new centre, with the aid of Nahua mercenaries, they commenced an extension of territory northward, and entered into diplomatic relations with the heads of the other Maya states. It was at this time that they built Uxmal, and their power became so extensive that they reconquered the territory they had lost to the Cocomes. This on the whole appears to have been a period when the arts flourished under an enlightened policy, which knew how to make and keep friendly relations with surrounding states, and the splendid network of roads with which the country was covered and the many evidences of architectural excellence go to prove that the race had had leisure to achieve much in art and works of utility. Thus the city of Chichen-Itza was linked up with the island of Cozumel by a highway whereon thousands of pilgrims plodded to the temples of the gods of wind and moisture. From Itzamal, too, roads branched in every direction, in order that the people should have every facility for reaching the chief shrine of the country situated there. But the hand of the Cocomes was heavy upon the other Maya states which were tributary to them. As in the Yucatan of to-day, where the wretched henequen-picker leads the life of a veritable slave, a crushing system of helotage obtained. The Cocomes made heavy demands upon the Tutul Xius, who in their turn sweated the hapless folk under their sway past the bounds of human endurance. As in all tottering civilisations, the feeling of responsibility among the upper classes became dormant, and they abandoned themselves to the pleasures of life without thought of the morrow. Morality ceased to be regarded as a virtue, and rottenness was at the core of Maya life. Discontent quickly spread on every hand.
The Revolution in Mayapan
The sequel was, naturally, revolution. Ground down by the tyranny of a dissolute oligarchy, the subject states rose in revolt. The Cocomes surrounded themselves by Nahua mercenaries, who succeeded in beating off the first wave of revolt, led by the king or regulus of Uxmal, who was defeated, and whose people in their turn rose against him, a circumstance which ended in the abandonment of the city of Uxmal. Once more were the Tutul Xius forced to go on pilgrimage, and this time they founded the city of Mani, a mere shadow of the splendour of Uxmal and Chichen.
If the aristocracy of the Cocomes was composed of weaklings, its ruler was made of sterner stuff. Hunac Eel, who exercised royal sway over this people, and held in subjection the lesser principalities of Yucatan, was not only a tyrant of harsh and vindictive temperament, but a statesman of judgment and experience, who courted the assistance of the neighbouring Nahua, whom he employed in his campaign against the new assailant of his absolutism, the ruler of Chichen-Itza. Mustering a mighty host of his vassals, Hunac Eel marched against the devoted city whose prince had dared to challenge his supremacy, and succeeded in inflicting a crushing defeat upon its inhabitants. But apparently the state was permitted to remain under the sovereignty of its native princes. The revolt, however, merely smouldered, and in the kingdom of Mayapan itself, the territory of the Cocomes, the fires of revolution began to blaze. This state of things continued for nearly a century. Then the crash came. The enemies of the Cocomes effected a junction. The people of Chichen-Itza joined hands with the Tutul Xius, who had sought refuge in the central highlands of Yucatan and those city-states which clustered around the mother-city of Mayapan. A fierce concerted attack was made, beneath which the power of the Cocomes crumpled up completely. Not one stone was left standing upon another by the exasperated allies, who thus avenged the helotage of nearly 300 years. To this event the date 1436 is assigned, but, like most dates in Maya history, considerable uncertainty must be attached to it.
The Last of the Cocomes
Only a remnant of the Cocomes survived. They had been absent in Nahua territory, attempting to raise fresh troops for the defence of Mayapan. These the victors spared, and they finally settled in Zotuta, in the centre of Yucatan, a region of almost impenetrable forest.
It would not appear that the city of Chichen-Itza, the prince of which was ever the head and front of the rebellion against the Cocomes, profited in any way from the fall of the suzerain power. On the contrary, tradition has it that the town was abandoned by its inhabitants, and left to crum-ble into the ruinous state in which the Spaniards found it on their entrance into the country. The probability is that its people quitted it because of the repeated attacks made upon it by the Cocomes, who saw in it the chief obstacle to their universal sway; and this is supported by tradition, which tells that a prince of Chichen-Itza, worn out with conflict and internecine strife, left it to seek the cradle of the Maya race in the land of the setting sun. Indeed, it is further stated that this prince founded the city of Peten-Itza, on the lake of Peten, in Guatemala.
The Prince who went to Found a City
The Maya Peoples of Guatemala
When the Maya peoples of Guatemala, the Kiches and the Kakchiquels, first made their way into that territory, they probably found there a race of Maya origin of a type more advanced and possessed of more ancient traditions than themselves. By their connection with this folk they greatly benefited in the direction of artistic achievement as well as in the industrial arts. Concerning these people we have a large body of tradition in the Popol Vuh, a native chronicle, the contents of which will be fully dealt with in the chapter relating to the Maya myths and legendary matter. We cannot deal with it as a veritable historical document, but there is little doubt that a basis of fact exists behind the tradition it contains. The difference between the language of these people and that of their brethren in Yucatan was, as has been said, one of dialect only, and a like slight distinction is found in their mythology, caused, doubtless, by the incidence of local conditions, and resulting in part from the difference between a level and comparatively waterless land and one of a semi-mountainous character covered with thick forests. We shall note further differences when we come to examine the art and architecture of the Maya race, and to compare those of its two most distinctive branches.
The Maya Tulan
It was to the city of Tulan, probably in Tabasco, that the Maya of Guatemala referred as being the starting-point of all their migrations. We must not confound this place with the Tollan of the Mexican traditions. It is possible that the name may in both cases be derived from a root meaning a place from which a tribe set forth, a starting-place, but geographical connection there is none. From here Nima-Kiche, the great Kiche, started on his migration to the mountains, accompanied by his three brothers. Tulan, says the Popol Vuh, had been a place of misfortune to man, for he had suffered much from cold and hunger, and, as at the building of Babel, his speech was so confounded that the first four Kiches and their wives were unable to comprehend one another. Of course this is a native myth created to account for the difference in dialect between the various branches of the Maya folk, and can scarcely have any foundation in fact, as the change in dialect would be a very gradual process. The brothers, we are told, divided the land so that one received the districts of Mames and Pocomams, another Verapaz, and the third Chiapas, while Nima-Kiche obtained the country of the Kiches, Kakchiquels, and Tzutuhils. It would be extremely difficult to say whether or not this tradition rests on any veritable historical basis. If so, it refers to a period anterior to the Nahua irruption, for the districts alluded to as occupied by these tribes were not so divided among them at the coming of the Spaniards.
As with the earlier dynasties of Egypt, considerable doubt surrounds the history of the early Kiche monarchs. Indeed, a period of such uncertainty occurs that even the number of kings who reigned is lost in the hopeless confusion of varying estimates. From this chaos emerge the facts that the Kiche monarchs held the supreme power among the peoples of Guatemala, that they were the contemporaries of the rulers of Mexico city, and that they were often elected from among the princes of the subject states. Acxopil, the successor of Nima-Kiche, invested his second son with the government of the Kakchiquels, and placed his youngest son over the Tzutuhils, whilst to his eldest son he left the throne of the Kiches. Icutemal, his eldest son, on succeeding his father, gifted the kingdom of Kakchiquel to his eldest son, displacing his own brother and thus mortally affronting him. The struggle which ensued lasted for generations, embittered the relations between these two branches of the Maya in Guatemala, and undermined their joint strength. Nahua mercenaries were employed in the struggle on both sides, and these introduced many of the uglinesses of Nahua life into Maya existence.
The Coming of the Spaniards
This condition of things lasted up to the time of the coming of the Spaniards. The Kakchiquels dated the commencement of a new chronology from the episode of the defeat of Cay Hun-Apu by them in 1492. They may have saved themselves the trouble; for the time was at hand when the calendars of their race were to be closed, and its records written in another script by another people. One by one, and chiefly by reason of their insane policy of allying themselves with the invader against their own kin, the old kingdoms of Guatemala fell as spoil to the daring Conquistadores, and their people passed beneath the yoke of Spain—bondsmen who were to beget countless generations of slaves.
The Riddle of Ancient Maya Writing
What may possibly be the most valuable sources of Maya history are, alas! sealed to us at present. We allude to the native Maya manuscripts and inscriptions, the writing of which cannot be deciphered by present-day scholars. Some of the old Spanish friars who lived in the times which directly succeeded the settlement of the country by the white man were able to read and even to write this script, but unfortunately they regarded it either as an invention of the Father of Evil or, as it was a native system, as a thing of no value. In a few generations all knowledge of how to decipher it was totally lost, and it remains to the modern world almost as a sealed book, although science has lavished all its wonderful machinery of logic and deduction upon it, and men of unquestioned ability have dedicated their lives to the problem of unravelling what must be regarded as one of the greatest and most mysterious riddles of which mankind ever attempted the solution.
The romance of the discovery of the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphic system of writing is well known. For centuries the symbols displayed upon the temples and monuments of the Nile country were so many meaningless pictures and signs to the learned folk of Europe, until the discovery of the Rosetta stone a hundred years ago made their elucidation possible. This stone bore the same inscription in Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphics, and so the discovery of the "alphabet" of the hidden script became a comparatively easy task. But Central America has no Rosetta stone, nor is it possible that such an aid to research can ever be found. Indeed, such "keys" as have been discovered or brought forward by scientists have proved for the most part unavailing.
The principal Maya manuscripts which have escaped the ravages of time are the codices in the libraries of Dresden, Paris, and Madrid. These are known as the Codex Perezianus, preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, the Dresden Codex, long regarded as an Aztec manuscript, and the Troano Codex, so called from one of its owners, Señor Tro y Ortolano, found at
The Maya Manuscripts
"The Tablet of the Cross"
By permission of the Bureau of American Ethnology
Madrid in 1865. These manuscripts deal principally with Maya mythology, but as they cannot be deciphered with any degree of accuracy they do not greatly assist our knowledge of the subject.
The System of the Writing
The "Tablet of the Cross" gives a good idea of the general appearance of the writing system of the ancient peoples of Central America. The style varies somewhat in most of the manuscripts and inscriptions, but it is generally admitted that all of the systems employed sprang originally from one common source. The square figures which appear as a tangle of faces and objects are said to be "calculiform," or pebble-shaped, a not inappropriate description, and it is known from ancient Spanish manuscripts that they were read from top to bottom, and two columns at a time. The Maya tongue, like all native American languages, was one which, in order to express an idea, gathered a whole phrase into a single word, and it has been thought that the several symbols or parts in each square or sketch go to make up such a compound expression.
The first key (so called) to the hieroglyphs of Central America was that of Bishop Landa, who about 1575 attempted to set down the Maya alphabet from native sources. He was highly unpopular with the natives, whose literary treasures he had almost completely destroyed, and who in revenge deliberately misled him as to the true significance of the various symbols.
The first real step toward reading the Maya writing was made in 1876 by Léon de Rosny, a French student of American antiquities, who succeeded in interpreting the signs which denote the four cardinal points. As has been the case in so many discoveries of importance, the significance of these signs was simultaneously discovered by Professor Cyrus Thomas in America. In two of these four signs was found the symbol which meant "sun," almost, as de Rosny acknowledged, as a matter of course. However, the Maya word for "sun" (kin) also denotes "day," and it was later proved that this sign was also used with the latter meaning. The discovery of the sign stimulated further research to a great degree, and from the material now at their disposal Drs. Förstemann and Schellhas of Berlin were successful in discovering the sign for the moon and that for the Maya month of twenty days.
In 1887 Dr. Seler discovered the sign for night (akbal), and in 1894 Förstemann unriddled the symbols for "beginning" and "end." These are two heads, the first of which has the sign akbal, just mentioned, for an eye. Now akbal means, as well as "night," "the beginning of the month," and below the face which contains it can be seen footsteps, or spots which resemble their outline, signifying a forward movement. The sign in the second head means "seventh," which in Maya also signifies "the end." From the frequent contrast of these terms there can be little doubt that their meaning is as stated.
"Union" is denoted by the sting of a rattlesnake, the coils of that reptile signifying to the Maya the idea of tying together. In contrast to this sign is the figure next to it, which represents a knife, and means "division" or "cutting." An important "letter" is the hand, which often occurs in both manuscripts and inscriptions. It is drawn sometimes in the act of grasping, with the thumb bent forward, and sometimes as pointing in a certain direction. The first seems to denote a tying together or joining, like the rattlesnake symbol, and the second Förstemann believes to represent a lapse of time. That it may represent futurity occurs; as a more likely conjecture to the present writer.
The figure denoting the spring equinox was traced because of its obvious representation of a cloud from which three streams of water are falling upon the earth. The square at the top represents heaven. The obsidian knife underneath denotes a division or period of time cut off, as it were, from other periods of the year. That the sign means "spring" is verified by its position among the other signs of the seasons.
The sign for "week" was discovered by reason of its almost constant accompaniment of the sign for the number thirteen, the number of days in the Maya sacred week. The symbol of the bird's feather indicates the plural, and when affixed to certain signs signifies that the object indicated is multiplied. A bird's feather, when one thinks of it, is one of the most fitting symbols provided by nature to designate the plural, if the number of shoots on both sides of the stem are taken as meaning "many" or "two."
Water is depicted by the figure of a serpent, which reptile typifies the undulating nature of the element. The sign entitled "the sacrificial victim" is of deep human interest. The first portion of the symbol is the death-bird, and the second shows a crouching and beaten captive, ready to be immolated to one of the terrible Maya deities whose sanguinary religion demanded human sacrifice. The drawing which means "the day of the new year," in the month Ceh, was unriddled by the following means: The sign in the upper left-hand corner denotes the word "sun" or "day," that in the upper right-hand corner is the sign for "year." In the lower right-hand corner is the sign for "division," and in the lower left-hand the sign for the Maya month Ceh, already known from the native calendars.
From its accompaniment of a figure known to be a deity of the four cardinal points, whence all American tribes believed the wind to come, the symbol entitled "wind" has been determined.
Methods of Study
The method employed by those engaged in the elucidation of these hieroglyphs is typical of modern science. The various signs and symbols are literally "worn out" by a process of indefatigable examination. For hours the student sits staring at a symbol, drinking in every detail, however infinitesimal, until the drawing and all its parts are wholly and separately photographed upon the tablets of his memory. He then compares the several portions of the symbol with similar portions in other signs the value of which is known. From these he may obtain a clue to the meaning of the whole. Thus proceeding from the known to the unknown, he advances logically toward a complete elucidation of all the hieroglyphs depicted in the various manuscripts and inscriptions.
The method by which Dr. Seler discovered the hieroglyphs or symbols relating to the various gods of the Maya was both simple and ingenious. He says: "The way in which this was accomplished is strikingly simple. It amounts essentially to that which in ordinary life we call 'memory of persons,' and follows almost naturally from a careful study of the manuscripts. For, by frequently looking tentatively at the representations, one learns by degrees to recognise promptly similar and familiar figures of gods by the characteristic impression they make as a whole or by certain details, and the same is true of the accompanying hieroglyphs."
The Maya Numeral System
If Bishop Landa was badly hoaxed regarding the alphabet of the Maya, he was successful in discovering and handing down their numeral system, which was on a very much higher basis than that of many civilised peoples, being, for example, more practical and more fully evolved than that of ancient Rome. This system employed four signs altogether, the point for unity, a horizontal stroke for the number 5, and two signs for 20 and 0. Yet from these simple elements the Maya produced a method of computation which is perhaps as ingenious as anything which has ever been accomplished in the history of mathematics. In the Maya arithmetical system, as in ours, it is the position of the sign that gives it its value. The figures were placed in a vertical line, and one of them was employed as a decimal multiplier. The lowest figure of the column had the arithmetical value which it represented. The figures which appeared in the second, fourth, and each following place had twenty times the value of the preceding figures, while figures in the third place had eighteen times the value of those in the second place. This system admits of computation up to millions, and is one of the surest signs of Maya culture.
Much controversy has raged round the exact nature of the Maya hieroglyphs. Were they understood by the Indians themselves as representing ideas or merely pictures, or did they convey a given sound to the reader, as does our alphabet? To some extent controversy upon the point is futile, as those of the Spanish clergy who were able to learn the writing from the native Maya have confirmed its phonetic character, so that in reality each symbol must have conveyed a sound or sounds to the reader, not merely an idea or a picture. Recent research has amply proved this, so that the full elucidation of the long and painful puzzle on which so much learning and patience have been lavished may perhaps be at hand.
Mythology of the Maya
The Maya pantheon, although it bears a strong resemblance to that of the Nahua, differs from it in so many respects that it is easy to observe that at one period it must have been absolutely free from all Nahua influence. We may, then, provisionally accept the theory that at some relatively distant period the mythologies of the Nahua and Maya were influenced from one common centre, if they were not originally identical, but that later the inclusion in the cognate but divided systems of local deities and the superimposition of the deities and rites of immigrant peoples had caused such differentiation as to render somewhat vague the original likeness between them. In the Mexican mythology we have as a key-note the custom of human sacrifice. It has often been stated as exhibiting the superior status in civilisation of the Maya that their religion was free from the revolting practices which characterised the Nahua faith. This, however, is totally erroneous. Although the Maya were not nearly so prone to the practice of human sacrifice as were the Nahua, they frequently engaged in it, and the pictures which have been drawn of their bloodless offerings must not lead us to believe that they never indulged in this rite. It is known, for example, that they sacrificed maidens to the water-god at the period of the spring florescence, by casting them into a deep pool, where they were drowned.
Design on Vase from Chamấ representing Maya Dieties
By permission of the Bureau of American Ethnology
Quetzalcoatl among the Maya
One of the most obvious of the mythological relationships between the Maya and Nahua is exhibited in the Maya cult of the god QuetzalcoatI. It seems to have been a general belief in Mexico that QuetzalcoatI was a god foreign to the soil; or at least relatively aboriginal to his rival Tezcatlipoca, if not to the Nahua themselves. It is amusing to see it stated by authorities of the highest standing that his worship was free from bloodshed. But it does not appear whether the sanguinary rites connected with the name of QuetzalcoatI in Mexico were undertaken by his priests of their own accord or at the instigation and pressure of the pontiff of Huitzilopochtli, under whose jurisdiction they were. The designation by which QuetzalcoatI was known to the Maya was Kukulcan, which signifies "Feathered Serpent," and is exactly translated by his Mexican name. In Guatemala he was called Gucumatz, which word is also identical in Kiche with his other native appellations. But the Kukulcan of the Maya appears to be dissimilar from QuetzalcoatI in several of his attributes. The difference in climate would probably account for most of these. In Mexico QuetzalcoatI, as we have seen, was not only the Man of the Sun, but the original wind-god of the country. The Kukulcan of the Maya has more the attributes of a thunder-god. In the tropical climate of Yucatan and Guatemala the sun at midday appears to draw the clouds around it in serpentine shapes. From these emanate thunder and lightning and the fertilising rain, so that Kukulcan would appear to have appealed to the Maya more as a god of the sky who wielded the thunderbolts than a god of the atmosphere proper like Quetzalcoatl, though several of the stelæ in Yucatan represent Kukulcan as he is portrayed in Mexico, with wind issuing from his mouth.
An Alphabet of Gods
The principal sources of our knowledge of the Maya deities are the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices alluded to previously, all of which contain many pictorial representations of the various members of the Maya pantheon. Of the very names of some of these gods we are so ignorant, and so difficult is the process of affixing to them the traditional names which are left to us as those of the Maya gods, that Dr. Paul Schellhas, a German student of Maya antiquities, has proposed that the figures of deities appearing in the Maya codices or manuscripts should be provisionally indicated by the letters of the alphabet. The figures of gods which thus occur are fifteen in number, and therefore take the letters of the alphabet from A to P, the letter J being omitted.
Difficulties of Comparison
Unluckily the accounts of Spanish authors concerning Maya mythology do not agree with the representations of the gods delineated in the codices. That the three codices have a mythology in common is certain. Again, great difficulty is found in comparing the deities of the codices with those represented by the carved and stucco bas-reliefs of the Maya region. It will thus be seen that very considerable difficulties beset the student in this mythological sphere. So few data have yet been collected regarding the Maya mythology that to dogmatise upon any subject connected with it would indeed be rash. But much has been accomplished in the past few decades, and evidence is slowly but surely accumulating from which sound conclusions can be drawn.
The Conflict between Light and Darkness
We witness in the Maya mythology a dualism almost as complete as that of ancient Persia—the conflict between light and darkness. Opposing each other we behold on the one hand the deities of the sun, the gods of warmth and light, of civilisation and the joy of life, and on the other the deities of darksome death, of night, gloom, and fear. From these primal conceptions of light and darkness all the mythologic forms of the Maya are evolved. When we catch the first recorded glimpses of Maya belief we recognise that at the period when it came under the purview of Europeans the gods of darkness were in the ascendant and a deep pessimism had spread over Maya thought and theology. Its joyful side was subordinated to the worship of gloomy brings, the deities of death and hell, and if the cult of light was attended with such touching fidelity it was because the benign agencies who were worshipped in connection with it had promised not to desert mankind altogether, but to return at some future indefinite period and resume their sway of radiance and peace.
Like that of the Nahua, the Maya mythology was based almost entirely upon the calendar, which in its astronomic significance and duration was identical with that of the Mexicans. The ritual year of twenty "weeks" of thirteen days each was divided into four quarters, each of these being under the auspices of a different quarter of the heavens. Each "week" was under the supervision of a particular deity, as will be seen when we come to deal separately with the various gods.
Traditional Knowledge of the Gods
The heavenly bodies had important representation in the Maya pantheon. In Yucatan the sun-god was known as Kinich-ahau (Lord of the Face of the Sun). He was identified with the Fire-bird, or Arara, and was thus called Kinich-Kakmo (Fire-bird; lit. Sun-bird). He was also the presiding genius of the north.
Itzamna, one of the most important of the Maya deities, was a moon-god, the father of gods and men. In him was typified the decay and recurrence of life in nature. His name was derived from the words he was supposed to have given to men regarding himself: "Itz en caan, itz en muyal" ("I am the dew of the heaven, I am the dew of the clouds"). He was tutelar deity of the west.
Chac, the rain-god, is the possessor of an elongated nose, not unlike the proboscis of a tapir, which of course is the spout whence comes the rain which he blows over the earth. He is one of the best represented gods on both manuscripts and monuments, and presides over the east. The black god Ekchuah was the god of merchants and cacao-planters. He is represented in the manuscripts several times.
Ix ch'el was the goddess of medicine, and Ix chebel yax was identified by the priest Hernandez with the Virgin Mary. There were also several deities, or rather genii, called Bacabs, who were the upholders of the heavens in the four quarters of the sky. The names of these were Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac, representing the east, north, west, and south. Their symbolic colours were yellow, white, black, and red respectively. They corresponded in some degree to the four variants of the Mexican rain-god Tlaloc, for many of the American races believed that rain, the fertiliser of the soil, emanated from the four points of the compass. We shall find still other deities when we come to discuss the Popol Vuh, the saga-book of the Kiche, but it is difficult to say how far these were connected with the deities of the Maya of Yucatan, concerning whom we have little traditional knowledge, and it is better to deal with them separately, pointing out resemblances where these appear to exist.
On the whole the Maya do not seem to have been burdened with an extensive pantheon, as were the Nahua, and their polytheism appears to have been of a limited character. Although they possessed a number of divinities, these were in a great measure only different forms of one and the same divine power—probably localised forms of it. The various Maya tribes worshipped similar gods under different names. They recognised divine unity in the god Hunabku, who was invisible and supreme, but he does not bulk largely in their mythology, any more than does the universal All-Father in other early faiths. The sun is the great deity in Maya religion, and the myths which tell of the origin of the Maya people are purely solar. As the sun comes from the east, so the hero-gods who bring with them culture and enlightenment have an oriental origin. As Votan, as Kabil, the "Red Hand" who initiates the people into the arts of writing and architecture, these gods are civilising men of the sun as surely as is Quetzalcoatl.
A sinister figure, the prince of the Maya legions of darkness, is the bat-god, Zotzilaha Chimalman, who dwelt in the "House of Bats," a gruesome cavern on the way to the abodes of darkness and death. He is undoubtedly a relic of cave-worship pure and simple. "The Maya," says an old chronicler, "have an immoderate fear of death, and they seem to have given it a figure peculiarly repulsive." We shall find this deity alluded to in the Popol Vuh, under the name Camazotz, in close proximity to the Lords of Death and Hell, attempting to bar the journey of the hero-gods across these dreary realms. He is frequently met with on the Copan reliefs, and a Maya clan, the Ah-zotzils, were called by his name. They were of Kakchiquel origin, and he was probably their totem.
We must now turn to the question of what modern research has done to elucidate the character of the various Maya deities. We have already seen that they have been provisionally named by the letters of the alphabet until such proof is forthcoming as will identify them with the traditional gods of the Maya, and we will now briefly examine what is known concerning them under their temporary designations.
In the Dresden and other codices god A is represented as a figure with exposed vertebræ and skull-like countenance, with the marks of corruption on his body, and displaying every sign of mortality. On his head he wears a snail-symbol, the Aztec sign of birth, perhaps to typify the connection between birth and death. He also wears a pair of cross-bones. The hieroglyph which accompanies his figure represents a corpse's head with closed eyes, a skull, and a sacrificial knife. His symbol is that for the calendar day Cimi, which means death. He presides over the west, the home of the dead, the
The House of Bats
region toward which they invariably depart with the setting sun. That he is a death-god there can be no doubt, but of his name we are ignorant. He is probably identical with the Aztec god of death and hell, Mictlan, and is perhaps one of those Lords of Death and Hell who invite the heroes to the celebrated game of ball in the Kiche Popol Vuh, and hold them prisoners in their gloomy realm.
God B is the deity who appears most frequently in the manuscripts. He has a long, truncated nose, like that of a tapir, and we find in him every sign of a god of the elements. He walks the waters, wields fiery torches, and seats himself on the cruciform tree of the four winds which appears so frequently in American myth. He is evidently a culture-god or hero, as he is seen planting maize, carrying tools, and going on a journey, a fact which establishes his solar connection. He is, in fact, Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl, and on examining him we feel that at least there can be no doubt concerning his identity.
Concerning god C matter is lacking, but he is evidently a god of the pole-star, as in one of the codices he is surrounded by planetary signs and wears a nimbus of rays.
God D is almost certainly a moon-god. He is represented as an aged man, with sunken cheeks and wrinkled forehead on which hangs the sign for night. His hieroglyph is surrounded by dots, to represent a starry sky, and is followed by the number 20, to show the duration of the moon. Like most moon deities he is connected with birth, for occasionally he wears the snail, symbol of parturition, on his head. It is probable that he is Itzamna, one of the greatest of Maya gods, who was regarded as the universal life-giver, and was probably of very ancient origin.
God E is another deity whom we have no difficulty in identifying. He wears the leafed ear of maize as his head-dress. In fact, his head has been evolved out of the conventional drawings of the ear of maize, so we may say at once without any difficulty that he is a maize-god pure and simple, and a parallel with the Aztec maize-god Centeotl. Brinton calls this god Ghanan, and Schellhas thinks he may be identical with a deity Yum Kaax, whose name means "Lord of the Harvest Fields."
A close resemblance can be noticed between gods F and A, and it is thought that the latter resembles the Aztec Xipe, the god of human sacrifice. He is adorned with the same black lines running over the face and body, typifying gaping death-wounds.
In G we may be sure that we have found a sun-god par excellence. His hieroglyph is the sun-sign, kin. But we must be careful not to confound him with deities like Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan. He is, like the Mexican Totec, the sun itself, and not the Man of the Sun, the civilising agent, who leaves his bright abode to dwell with man and introduce him to the arts of cultured existence. He is the luminary himself, whose only acceptable food is human blood, and who must be fed full with this terrible fare or perish, dragging the world of men with him into a fathomless abyss of gloom. We need not be surprised, therefore, to see god G occasionally wearing the symbols of death.
God H would seem to have some relationship to the serpent, but what it may be is obscure, and no certain identification can be made.
I is a water-goddess, an old woman with wrinkled brown body and claw-like feet, wearing on her head a grisly snake twisted into a knot, to typify the serpent-like nature of water. She holds in her hands an earthenware pot from which water flows. We cannot say that she resembles the Mexican water-goddess, Chalchihuitlicue, wife of Tlaloc, who was in most respects a deity of a beneficent character. I seems a personification of water in its more dreadful aspect of floods and waterspouts, as it must inevitably have appeared to the people of the more torrid regions of Central America, and that she was regarded as an agent of death is shown from her occasionally wearing the cross-bones of the death-god.
"The God with the Ornamented Nose"
God K is scientifically known as "the god with the ornamented nose," and is probably closely related to god B. Concerning him no two authorities are at one, some regarding him as a storm-god, whose proboscis, like that of Kukulcan, is intended to represent the blast of the tempest. But we observe certain stellar signs in connection with K which would go to prove that he is, indeed, one of the Quetzalcoatl group. His features are constantly to be met with on the gateways and corners of the ruined shrines of Central America, and have led many "antiquarians" to believe in the existence of an elephant-headed god, whereas his trunk-like snout is merely a funnel through which he emitted the gales over which he had dominion, as a careful study of the pinturas shows, the wind being depicted issuing from the snout in question. At the same time, the snout may have been modelled on that of the tapir. "If the rain-god Chac is distinguished in the Maya manuscript by a peculiarly long nose curving over the mouth, and if in the other forms of the rain-god, to which, as it seems, the name of Balon Zacab belongs, the nose widens out and sends out shoots, I believe that the tapir which was employed identically with Chac, the Maya rain-god, furnished the model," says Dr. Seler. Is K, then, the same as Chac? Chac bears every sign of affinity with the Mexican rain-god Tlaloc, whose face was evolved from the coils of two snakes, and also some resemblance to the snouted features of B and K. But, again, the Mexican pictures 'of Quetzalcoatl are not at all like those of Tlaloc, so that there can be no affinity between Tlaloc and K. Therefore if the Mexican Tlaloc and the Maya Chac be identical, and Tlaloc differs from Quetzalcoatl, who in turn is identical with B and K, it is clear that Chac has nothing to do with K.
The Old Black God
God L Dr. Schellhas has designated "the Old Black God," from the circumstance that he is depicted as an old man with sunken face and toothless gums, the upper, or sometimes the lower, part of his features being covered with black paint. He is represented in the Dresden MS. only. Professor Cyrus Thomas, of New York, thinks that he is the god Ekchuah, who is traditionally described as black, but Schellhas fits this designation to god M. The more probable theory is that of Förstemann, who sees in L the god Votan, who is identical with the Aztec earth-god, Tepeyollotl. Both deities have similar face markings, and their dark hue is perhaps symbolical of the subterranean places where they were supposed to dwell.
The Travellers' God God M is a veritable black god, with reddish lips. On his head he bears a roped package resembling the loads carried by the Maya porter class, and he is found in violent opposition with F, the enemy of all who wander into the unknown wastes. A god of this description has been handed down by tradition under the name of Ekchuah, and his blackness is probably symbolical of the black or deeply bronzed skin of the porter class among the natives of Central America, who are constantly exposed to the sun. He would appear to be a parallel to the Aztec Yacatecutli, god of travelling merchants or chapmen.
The God of Unlucky Days
God N is identified by Schellhas with the demon Uayayab, who presided over the five unlucky days which it will be recollected came at the end of the Mexican and Maya year. He was known to the Maya as "He by whom the year is poisoned." After modelling his image in clay they carried it out of their villages, so that his baneful influence might not dwell therein.
Goddess O is represented as an old woman engaged in the avocation of spinning, and is probably a goddess of the domestic virtues, the tutelar of married females.
God P is shown with the body and fins of a frog on a blue background, evidently intended to represent water. Like all other frog-gods he is, of course, a deity of water, probably in its agricultural significance. We find him sowing seed and making furrows, and when we remember the important part played by frog deities in the agriculture of Anahuac we should have no difficulty in classing him with these. Seler asserts his identity with Kukulcan, but no reason except the circumstance of his being a rain-god can be advanced to establish the identity. He wears the year-sign on his head, probably with a seasonal reference.
It was in the wonderful architectural system which it developed without outside aid that the Maya people most individually expressed itself. As has been said, those buildings which still remain, and which have excited the admiration of generations of archæologists, are principally confined to examples of ecclesiastical and governmental architecture, the dwellings of the common people consisting merely of the flimsiest of wattle-and-daub structures, which would fall to pieces shortly after they were abandoned.
Buried in dense forests or mouldering on the sun-exposed plains of Yucatan, Honduras, and Guatemala, the cities which boasted these edifices are for the most part situated away from modern trade routes, and are not a little difficult to come at. It is in Yucatan, the old home of the Cocomes and Tutul Xius, that the most perfect specimens of Maya architecture are to be found, especially as regards its later development, and here, too, it may be witnessed in its decadent phase.
Methods of Building
The Maya buildings were almost always erected upon a mound or ku, either natural or artificial, generally the latter. In this we discover affinities with the Mexican teocalli type. Often these kus stood alone, without any superincumbent building save a small altar to prove their relation to the temple type of Anahuac. The typical Maya temple was built on a series of earth terraces arranged in exact parallel order, the buildings themselves forming the sides of a square. The mounds are generally concealed by plaster or faced with stone, the variety employed being usually a hard sandstone, of which the Maya had a good supply in the quarries of Chiapas and Honduras. Moderate in weight, the difficulty of transport was easily overcome, whilst large blocks could be readily quarried. It will thus be seen that the Maya had no substantial difficulties to surmount in connection with building the large edifices and temples they raised, except, perhaps, the lack of metal tools to shape and carve and quarry the stone which they used. And although they exhibit considerable ingenuity in such architectural methods as they employed, they were still surprisingly ignorant of some of the first essentials and principles of the art.
No Knowledge of the Arch
For example, they were totally ignorant of the principles upon which the arch is constructed. This difficulty they overcame by making each course of masonry overhang the one beneath it, after the method employed by a boy with a box of bricks, who finds that he can only make "doorways" by this means, or by the simple expedient—also employed by the Maya—of placing a slab horizontally upon two upright pillars. In consequence it will readily be seen that the superimposition of a second story upon such an insecure foundation was scarcely to be thought of, and that such support for the roof as towered above the doorway would necessarily require to be of the most substantial description. Indeed, this portion of the building often appears to be more than half the size of the rest of the edifice. This space gave the Maya builders a splendid chance for mural decoration, and it must be said they readily seized it and made the most of it, ornamental façades being perhaps the most typical features in the relics of Maya architecture.
But the Maya possessed another type of building which permitted of their raising more than one story. This was the pyramidal type, of which many examples remain. The first story was built in the usual manner, and the second was raised by increasing the height of the mound at the back of the building until it was upon a level with the roof—another device well known to the boy with the box of bricks. In the centre of the space thus made another story could be erected, which was entered by a staircase outside the building. Hampered by their inability to build to any appreciable height, the Maya architects made up for the deficiency by constructing edifices of considerable length and breadth, the squat appearance of which is counterbalanced by the beautiful mural decoration of the sides and façade.
Definiteness of Design
He would be a merely superficial observer who would form the conclusion that these specimens of an architecture spontaneously evolved were put together without survey, design, or previous calculation. That as much thought entered into their construction as is lavished upon his work by a modern architect is proved by the manner in which the carved stones fit into one another. It would be absurd to suppose that these tremendous façades bristling with scores of intricate designs could have been first placed in position and subsequently laden with the bas-reliefs they exhibit. It is plain that they were previously worked apart and separately from one entire design. Thus we see that the highest capabilities of the architect were essential in a measure to the erection of these imposing structures.
Although the mason-craft of the Maya peoples was essentially similar in all the regions populated by its various tribes and offshoots, there existed in the several localities occupied by them certain differences in construction and ornamentation which would almost justify us in dividing them into separate architectural spheres. In Chiapas, for example, we find the bas-relief predominant, whether in stone or stucco. In Honduras we find a stiffness of design which implies an older type of architecture, along with caryatides and memorial pillars of human shape. In Guatemala, again, we find traces of the employment of wood. As the civilisation of the Maya cannot be well comprehended without some knowledge of their architecture, and as that art was unquestionably their national forte and the thing which most sharply distinguished them from the semisavage peoples that surrounded them, it will be well to consider it for a space as regards its better-known individual examples.
Fascination of the Subject
He would indeed be dull of imagination and of spirit who could enter into the consideration of such a subject as this without experiencing some thrill from the mystery which surrounds it. Although familiarised with the study of the Maya antiquities by reason of many years of close acquaintance with it, the author cannot approach the theme without a feeling of the most intense awe. We are considering the memorials of a race isolated for countless thousands of years from the rest of humanity—a race which by itself evolved a civilisation in every respect capable of comparison with those of ancient Egypt or Assyria. In these impenetrable forests and sun-baked plains mighty works were raised which tell of a culture of a lofty type. We are aware that the people who reared them entered into religious and perhaps philosophical considerations their interpretations of which place them upon a level with the most enlightened races of antiquity; but we have only stepped upon the margin of Maya history. What dread secrets, what scenes of orgic splendour have those carven walls witnessed? What solemn priestly conclave, what magnificence of rite, what marvels of initiation, have these forest temples known? These things we shall never learn. They are hidden from us in a gloom as palpable as that of the tree-encircled depths in which we find these shattered works of a once powerful hierarchy.
One of the most famous of these ancient centres of priestly domination is Palenque, situated in the modern state of Chiapas. This city was first brought into notice by Don José Calderon in 1774, when he discovered no less than eighteen palaces, twenty great buildings, and a hundred and sixty houses, which proves that in his day the primeval forest had not made such inroads upon the remaining buildings as it has during the past few generations. There is good evidence besides this that Palenque was standing at the time of Cortés ' conquest of Yucatan. And here it will be well at once to dispel any conception the reader may have formed concerning the vast antiquity of these cities and the structures they contain. The very oldest of them cannot be of a date anterior to the thirteenth century, and few Americanists of repute would admit such an antiquity for them. There may be remains of a fragmentary nature here and there in Central America which are relatively more ancient.
Part of the Palace and Tower, Palenque
Photo C. B. Waite, Mexico
But no temple or edifice which remains standing can claim a greater antiquity.
Palenque is built in the form of an amphitheatre, and nestles on the lowest slopes of the Cordilleras. Standing on the central pyramid, the eye is met by a ring of ruined palaces and temples raised upon artificial terraces. Of these the principal and most imposing is the Palace, a pile reared upon a single platform, forming an irregular quadrilateral, with a double gallery on the east, north, and west sides, surrounding an inner structure with a similar gallery and two court-yards. It is evident that there was little system or plan observed in the construction of this edifice, an unusual circumstance in Maya architecture. The dwelling apartments were situated on the southern side of the structure, and here there is absolute confusion, for buildings of all sorts and sizes jostle each other, and are reared on different levels.
Our interest is perhaps at first excited by three subterraneous apartments down a flight of gloomy steps. Here are to be found three great stone tables, the edges of which are fretted with sculptured symbols. That these were altars admits of little doubt, although some visitors have not hesitated to call them dining-tables! These constitute only one of the many puzzles in this building of 228 feet frontage, with a depth of 180 feet, which at the same time is only about 25 feet high!
On the north side of the Palace pyramid the façade of the Palace has crumbled into complete ruin, but some evidences of an entrance are still noticeable. There were probably fourteen doorways in all in the frontage, with a width of about 9 feet each, the piers of which were covered with figures in bas-relief. The inside of the galleries is also covered at intervals with similar designs, or medallions, many of which are probably representations of priests or priestesses who once dwelt within the classic shades and practiced strange rites in the worship of gods long since forgotten. One of these is of a woman with delicate features and high-bred countenance, and the frame or rim surrounding it is decorated in a manner recalling the Louis XV style.
The east gallery is 114 feet long, the north 185 feet, and the west 102 feet, so that, as remarked above, a lack of symmetry is apparent. The great court is reached by a Mayan arch which leads on to a staircase, on each side of which grotesque human figures of the Maya type are sculptured. Whom they are intended to portray or what rite they are engaged in it would indeed be difficult to say. That they are priests may be hazarded, for they appear to be dressed in the ecclesiastical maxtli (girdle), and one seems to be decorated with the beads seen in the pictures of the death-god. Moreover, they are mitred.
The courtyard is exceedingly irregular in shape. To the south side is a small building which has assisted our knowledge of Maya mural decoration; especially valuable is the handsome frieze with which it is adorned, on which we observe the rather familiar feathered serpent (Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl). Every-where we notice the flat Maya head—a racial type, perhaps brought about by deformation of the cranium in youth. One of the most important parts of the Palace from an architectural point of view is the east front of the inner wing, which is perhaps the best preserved, and exhibits the most luxurious ornamentation. Two roofed galleries supported by six pillars covered with bas-reliefs are reached by a staircase on which hieroglyphic signs still remain. The reliefs in cement are still faintly to be discerned on the pillars, and must have been of great beauty. They represent mythological characters in various attitudes. Above, seven enormous heads frown on the explorer in grim menace. The effect of the entire façade is rich in the extreme, even in ruin, and from it we can obtain a faint idea of the splendours of this wonderful civilisation.
An Architectural Curiosity
One of the few towers to be seen among the ruins of Maya architecture stands at Palenque. It is square in shape and three stories in height, with sloping roof, and is not unlike the belfry of some little English village church.
The building we have been describing, although traditionally known as a "palace," was undoubtedly a great monastery or ecclesiastical habitation. Indeed, the entire city of Palenque was solely a priestly centre, a place of pilgrimage. The bas-reliefs with their representations of priests and acolytes prove this, as does the absence of warlike or monarchical subjects.
The Temple of Inscriptions
The Temple of Inscriptions, perched on an eminence some 40 feet high, is the largest edifice in Palenque. It has a façade 74 feet long by 25 feet deep, composed of a great gallery which runs along the entire front of the fane. The building has been named from the inscriptions with which certain flagstones in the central apartment are covered. Three other temples occupy a piece of rising ground close by. These are the Temple of the Sun, closely akin in type to many Japanese temple buildings; the Temple of the Cross, in which a wonderful altar-piece was discovered; and the Temple of the Cross No. II. In the Temple of the Cross the inscribed altar gave its name to the building. In the central slab is a cross of the American pattern, its roots springing from the hideous head of the goddess Chicomecohuatl, the Earth-mother, or her Maya equivalent. Its branches stretch to where on the right and left stand two figures, evidently those of a priest and acolyte, performing some mysterious rite. On the apex of the tree is placed the sacred turkey, or "Emerald Fowl," to which offerings of maize paste are made. The whole is surrounded by inscriptions. (See illustration facing p. 160.)
Aké and Itzamal
Thirty miles east of Merida lies Aké, the colossal and primeval ruins of which speak of early Maya occupation. Here are pyramids, tennis-courts, and gigantic pillars which once supported immense galleries, all in a state of advanced ruin. Chief among these is the great pyramid and gallery, a mighty staircase rising toward lofty pillars, and somewhat reminiscent of Stonehenge. For what purpose it was constructed is quite unknown.
The House of Darkness
One ruin, tradition calls "The House of Darkness." Here no light enters save that which filters in by the open doorway. The vaulted roof is lost in a lofty gloom. So truly have the huge blocks of which the building is composed been laid that not even a needle could be inserted between them. The whole is coated with a hard plaster or cement.
The Knuc (Palace of Owls), where a beautiful frieze of diamond-shaped stones intermingling with
The Palace of Owls
The King who Loved a Princess
See page 189
spheres may be observed, is noteworthy. All here is undoubtedly of the first Yucatec era, the time when the Maya first overran the country.
At Itzamal the chief object of interest is the great pyramid of Kinich-Kakmo (The Sun's Face with Fiery Rays), the base of which covers an area of nearly 650 square feet. To this shrine thousands were wont to come in times of panic or famine, and from the summit, where was housed the glittering idol, the smoke of sacrifice ascended to the cloudless sky, whilst a multitude of white-robed priests and augurs chanted and prophesied. To the south of this mighty pile stand the ruins of the Ppapp-Hol-Chac (The House of Heads and Lightnings), the abode of the chief priest.
At Itzamal, too, stood one of the chief temples of the great god Itzamna, the legendary founder of the Maya Empire. Standing on a lofty pyramid, four roads radiated from it, leading to Tabasco, Guatemala, and Chiapas; and here they brought the halt, the maimed, and the blind, aye, even the dead, for succour and resurrection, such faith had they in the mighty power of Kab-ul (The Miraculous Hand), as they designated the deity. The fourth road ran to the sacred isle of Cozumel, where first the men of Spain found the Maya cross, and supposed it to prove that St. Thomas had discovered the American continent in early times, and had converted the natives to a Christianity which had become debased.
To the west arose another pyramid, on the summit of which was built the palace of Hunpictok (The Commander-in-chief of Eight Thousand Flints), in allusion, probably, to the god of lightning, Hurakan, whose gigantic face, once dominating the basement wall, has now disappeared. This face possessed huge mustachios, appendages unknown to the Maya race; and, indeed, we are struck with the frequency with which Mexican and Mayan gods and heroes are adorned with beards and other hirsute ornaments both on the monuments and in the manuscripts. Was the original governing class a bearded race? It is scarcely probable. Whence, then, the ever-recurring beard and moustache? These may have been developed in the priestly class by constant ceremonial shaving, which often produces a thin beard in the Mongolians—as witness the modern Japanese, who in imitating a custom of the West often succeed in producing quite respectable beards.
A Colossal Head
Not far away is to be found a gigantic head, probably that of the god Itzamna. It is 13 feet in height, and the features were formed by first roughly tracing them in rubble, and afterwards coating the whole with plaster. The figure is surrounded by spirals, symbols of wind or speech. On the opposite side of the pyramid alluded to above is found a wonderful bas-relief representing a tiger couchant, with a human head of the Maya type, probably depicting one of the early ancestors of the Maya, Balam-Quitze (Tiger with the Sweet Smile), of whom we read in the Popol Vuh.
At Chichen-Itza, in Yucatan, the chief wonder is the gigantic pyramid-temple known as El Castillo. It is reached by a steep flight of steps, and from it the vast
Teocalli or Pyramid of Papantla
Photo C. B. Waite, Mexico
The Nunnery, Chichen-Itza
Photo C. B. Waite
ruins of Chichen radiate in a circular manner. To the east is the market-place, to the north a mighty-temple, and a tennis-court, perhaps the best example of its kind in Yucatan, whilst to the west stand the Nunnery and the Chichan-Chob, or prison. Concerning Chichen-Itza Cogolludo tells the following story: "A king of Chichen called Canek fell desperately in love with a young princess, who, whether she did not return his affection or whether she was compelled to obey a parental mandate, married a more powerful Yucatec cacique. The discarded lover, unable to bear his loss, and moved by love and despair, armed his dependents and suddenly fell upon his successful rival. Then the gaiety of the feast was exchanged for the din of war, and amidst the confusion the Chichen prince disappeared, carrying off the beautiful bride. But conscious that his power was less than his rival's, and fearing his vengeance, he fled the country with most of his vassals." It is a historical fact that the inhabitants of Chichen abandoned their city, but whether for the reason given in this story or not cannot be discovered.
The Nunnery at Chichen is a building of great beauty of outline and decoration, the frieze above the doorway and the fretted ornamentation of the upper story exciting the admiration of most writers on the subject. Here dwelt the sacred women, the chief of whom, like their male prototypes, were dedicated to Kukulcan and regarded with much reverence. The base of the building is occupied by eight large figures, and over the door is the representation of a priest with a panache, whilst a row of gigantic heads crowns the north façade. Here, too, are figures of the wind-god, with projecting lips, which many generations of antiquarians took for heads of elephants with waving trunks! The entire building is one of the gems of Central American architecture, and delights the eye of archaeologist and artist alike. In El Castillo are found wonderful bas-reliefs depicting bearded men, evidently the priests of Quetzalcoatl, himself bearded, and to the practised eye one of these would appear to be wearing a false hirsute appendage, as kings were wont to do in ancient Egypt. Were these beards artificial and symbolical?
The "Writing in the Dark"
The Akab-sib (Writing in the Dark) is a bas-relief found on the lintel of an inner door at the extremity of the building. It represents a figure seated before a vase, with outstretched forefinger, and whence it got its traditional appellation it would be hard to say, unless the person represented is supposed to be in the act of writing. The figure is surrounded by inscriptions. At Chichen were found a statue of Tlaloc, the god of rain or moisture, and immense torsos representing Kukulcan. There also was a terrible well into which men were cast in time of drought as a propitiation to the rain-god.
At Kabah there is a marvellous frontage which strikingly recalls that of a North American Indian totem-house in its fantastic wealth of detail. The ruins are scattered over a large area, and must all have been at one time painted in brilliant colours. Here two horses' heads in stone were unearthed, showing that the natives had copied faithfully the steeds of the conquering Spaniards. Nothing is known of the history of Kabah,
Details of the Nunnery at Chichen-Itza
Photo C. B. Waite, Mexico
but its neighbour, Uxmal, fifteen miles distant, is much more famous.
The imposing pile of the Casa del Gobernador (Governor's Palace, so called) at Uxmal is perhaps the best known and described of all the aboriginal buildings of Central America. It occupies three successive colossal terraces, and its frieze runs in a line of 325 feet, and is divided into panels, each of which frames a gigantic head of priest or deity. The striking thing concerning this edifice is that although it has been abandoned for over three hundred years it is still almost as fresh architecturally as when it left the builder's hands. Here and there a lintel has fallen, or stones have been removed in a spirit of vandalism to assist in the erection of a neighbouring hacienda, but on the whole we possess in it the most unspoiled piece of Yucatec building in existence. On the side of the palace where stands the main entrance, directly over the gateway, is the most wonderful fret-work and ornamentation, carried out in high relief, above which soar three eagles in hewn stone, surmounted by a plumed human head. In the plinth are three heads, which in type recall the Roman, surrounded by inscriptions. A clear proof of the comparative lateness of the period in which Uxmal was built is found in the circumstance that all the lintels over the doorways are of wood, of which much still exists in a good state of preservation. Many of the joists of the roofs were also of timber, and were fitted into the stonework by means of specially carved ends.
The Dwarf's House
There is also a nunnery which forcibly recalls that at Chichen, and is quite as elaborate and flamboyant in its architectural design. But the real mystery at Uxmal is the Casa del Adivino (The Prophet's House), also locally known as "The Dwarf's House." It consists of two portions, one of which is on the summit of an artificial pyramid, whilst the other, a small but beautifully finished chapel, is situated lower down facing the town. The loftier building is reached by an exceedingly steep staircase, and bears every evidence of having been used as a sanctuary, for here were discovered cacao and copal, recently burnt, by Cogolludo as late as 1656, which is good evidence that the Yucatecs did not all at once abandon their ancient faith at the promptings of the Spanish fathers.
In his Travels in Yucatan Stephens has a legend relating to this house which may well be given in his own words: "An old woman," he says, "lived alone in her hut, rarely leaving her chimney-corner. She was much distressed at having no children, and in her grief one day took an egg, wrapped it up carefully in cotton cloth, and put it in a corner of her hut. She looked everyday in great anxiety, but no change in the egg was observable. One morning, however, she found the shell broken, and a lovely tiny creature was stretching out its arms to her. The old woman was in raptures. She took it to her heart, gave it a nurse, and was so careful of it that at the end of a year the baby walked and talked as well as a grown-up man. But he stopped growing. The good old woman in her joy and delight exclaimed that the baby should be a great chief. One day she told him to go to the king's palace and engage him in a trial of strength. The dwarf begged hard not to be sent on such an enterprise. But the old woman insisted on his going, and he was obliged to obey. When ushered into the presence
The Legend of the Dwarf
The Old Woman who took an Egg home
of the sovereign he threw down his gauntlet. The latter smiled, and asked him to lift a stone of three arobes (75 lb.). The child returned crying to his mother, who sent him back, saying, 'If the king can lift the stone, you can lift it too.' The king did take it up, but so did the dwarf. His strength was tried in many other ways, but all the king did was as easily done by the dwarf. Wroth at being outdone by so puny a creature, the prince told the dwarf that unless he built a palace loftier than any in the city he should die. The affrighted dwarf returned to the old woman, who bade him not to despair, and the next morning they both awoke in the palace which is still standing. The king saw the palace with amazement. He instantly sent for the dwarf, and desired him to collect two bundles of cogoiol (a kind of hard wood), with one of which he would strike the dwarf on the head, and consent to be struck in return by his tiny adversary. The latter again returned to his mother moaning and lamenting. But the old woman cheered him up, and, placing a tortilla on his head, sent him back to the king. The trial took place in the presence of all the state grandees. The king broke the whole of his bundle on the dwarf's head without hurting him in the least, seeing which he wished to save his own head from the impending ordeal; but his word had been passed before his assembled court, and he could not well refuse. The dwarf struck, and at the second blow the king's skull was broken to pieces. The spectators immediately proclaimed the victorious dwarf their sovereign. After this the old woman disappeared. But in the village of Mani, fifty miles distant, is a deep well leading to a subterraneous passage which extends as far as Merida. In this passage is an old woman sitting on the bank of a river shaded by a great tree, having a serpent by her side. She sells water in small quantities, accepting no money, for she must have human beings, innocent babies, which are devoured by the serpent. This old woman is the dwarf's mother."
The interpretation of this myth is by no means difficult. The old woman is undoubtedly the rain-goddess, the dwarf the Man of the Sun who emerges from the cosmic egg. In Yucatan dwarfs were sacred to the sun-god, and were occasionally sacrificed to him, for reasons which appear obscure.
The Mound of Sacrifice
Another building at Uxmal the associations of which render it of more than passing interest is the Pyramid of Sacrifice, an edifice built on the plan of the Mexican teocalli. Indeed, it is probably of Aztec origin, and may even have been erected by the mercenaries who during the fifteenth century swarmed from Mexico into Yucatan and Guatemala to take service with the rival chieftain's who carried on civil war in those states. Beside this is another mound which was crowned by a very beautiful temple, now in an advanced state of ruin. The "Pigeon House" is an ornate pile with pinnacles pierced by large openings which probably served as dovecotes. The entire architecture of Uxmal displays a type more primitive than that met elsewhere in Yucatan. There is documentary evidence to prove that so late as 1673 the Indians still worshipped in the ruins of Uxmal, where they burnt copal, and performed "other detestable sacrifices." So that even a hundred and fifty years of Spanish rule had not sufficed to wean the natives from the worship of the older gods to whom their fathers had for generations bowed down. This would also seem conclusive evidence that the ruins of Uxmal at least were the work of the existing race.
The Phantom City
In his Travels in Central America Stephens recounts a fascinating story told him by a priest of Santa Cruz del Quiche, to the effect that four days' journey from that place a great Indian city was to be seen, densely populated, and preserving the ancient civilisation of the natives. He had, indeed, beheld it from the summit of a cliff, shining in glorious whiteness many leagues away. This was perhaps Lorillard City, discovered by Suarez, and afterwards by Charnay. In general type Lorillard closely resembles Palenque. Here was found a wonderfully executed stone idol, which Charnay thought represented a different racial type from that seen in the other Central American cities. The chief finds of interest in this ancient city were the intricate bas-reliefs, one over the central door of a temple, probably a symbolic representation of Quetzalcoatl, who holds the rain-cross, in both hands, and is seen vis-à-vis with an acolyte, also holding the symbol, though it is possible that the individual represented may have been the high-priest of Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan. Another bas-relief represents a priest sacrificing to Kukulcan by passing a rope of maguey fibre over his tongue for the purpose of drawing blood—an instance of the substitution in sacrifice of the part for the whole.
At Peten-Itza, Cortés left his horse, which had fallen sick, to the care of the Indians. The animal died under their mismanagement and because of the food offered it, and the terrified natives, fancying it a divine being, raised an image of it, and called it Izimin Chac (Thunder and Lightning), because they had seen its rider discharge a firearm, and they imagined that the flash and the report had proceeded from the creature. The sight of the idol aroused such wrath in the zealous bosom of a certain Spanish monk that he broke it with a huge stone—and, but for the interference of the cacique, would have suffered death for his temerity. Peten was a city "filled with idols," as was Tayasal, close at hand, where in the seventeenth century no less than nine new temples were built, which goes to prove that the native religion was by no means extinct. One of these new temples, according to Villagutierre, had a Spanish balcony of hewn stone! In the Temple of the Sun at Tikal, an adjoining city, is a wonderful altar panel, representing an unknown deity, and here also are many of those marvellously carved idols of which Stephens gives such capital illustrations in his fascinating book.
Copan, one of the most interesting of these wondrous city-centres, the name of which has, indeed, become almost a household word, is in the same district as the towns just described, and abounds chiefly in monolithic images. It yielded after a desperate struggle to Hernandez de Chaves, one of Alvarado's lieutenants, in 1530. The monolithic images so abundantly represented here are evolved from the stelæ and the bas-relief, and are not statues in the proper sense of the term, as they are not completely cut away from the stone background out of which they were carved. An altar found at Copan exhibits real skill in sculpture, the head-dresses, ornaments, and expressions of the eight figures carved on its sides being elaborate in the extreme and exceedingly lifelike. Here again we notice a fresh racial type, which goes to prove that one race alone cannot have been responsible for these marvellous ruined cities and all that they contain and signify. We have to imagine a shifting of races and a fluctuation of peoples in Central America such as we know took place in Europe and Asia before we can rightly understand the ethnological problems of the civilised sphere of the New World, and any theory which does not take due account of such conditions is doomed to failure.
We now come to the last of these stupendous remnants of a vanished civilisation—Mitla, by no means the least of the works of civilised man in Central America. At the period of the conquest the city occupied a wide area, but at the present time only six palaces and three ruined pyramids are left standing. The great palace is a vast edifice in the shape of the letter T, and measures 130 feet in its greater dimension, with an apartment of a like size. Six monolithic columns which supported the roof still stand in gigantic isolation, but the roof itself has long fallen in. A dark passage leads to the inner court, and the walls of this are covered with mosaic work in panels which recalls somewhat the pattern known as the "Greek fret." The lintels over the doorways are of huge blocks of stone nearly eighteen feet long. Of this building Viollet-le-Duc says: "The monuments of Greece and Rome in their best time can alone compare with the splendour of this great edifice."
A Place of Sepulture
The ruins at Mitla bear no resemblance to those of Mexico or Yucatan, either as regards architecture or ornamentation, for whereas the Yucatec buildings possess overlapping walls, the palaces of Mitla consist of perpendicular walls intended to support flat roofs. Of these structures the second and fourth palaces alone are in such a state of preservation as to permit of general description. The second palace shows by its sculptured lintel and two inner columns that the same arrangement was observed in its construction as in the great palace just described. The fourth palace has on its southern façade oblong panels and interesting caryatides or pillars in the shape of human figures. These palaces consisted of four upper apartments, finely sculptured, and a like number of rooms on the lower story, which was occupied by the high-priest, and to which the king came to mourn on the demise of a relative. Here, too, the priests were entombed, and in an adjoining room the idols were kept. Into a huge underground chamber the bodies of eminent warriors and sacrificial victims were cast. Attempts have been made to identify Mitla with Mictlan, the Mexican Hades, and there is every reason to suppose that the identification is correct. It must be borne in mind that Mictlan was as much a place of the dead as a place of punishment, as was the Greek Hades, and therefore might reasonably signify a place of sepulture, such as Mitla undoubtedly was. The following passages from the old historians of Mitla, Torquemada and Burgoa, throw much light on this aspect of the city, and besides are full of the most intense interest and curious information, so that they may be given in extenso. But before passing on to them we should for a moment glance at Seler's suggestion that the American race imagined that their ancestors had originally issued from the underworld through certain caverns into the light of day, and that this was the reason why Mitla was not only a burial-place but a sanctuary.
Great Palace of Mitla
By permission of the Bureau of American Ethnology
Interior of an Apartment in the Palace of Mitla
Photo C. B. Waite, Mexico
An Old Description of Mitla
Of Mitla Father Torquemada writes:
"When some monks of my order, the Franciscan, passed, preaching and shriving, through the province of Zapoteca, whose capital city is Tehuantepec, they came to a village which was called Mictlan, that is, Underworld [Hell]. Besides mentioning the large number of people in the village they told of buildings which were prouder and more magnificent than any which they had hitherto seen in New Spain. Among them was a temple of the evil spirit and living-rooms for his demoniacal servants, and among other fine things there was a hall with ornamented panels, which were constructed of stone in a variety of arabesques and other very remarkable designs. There were doorways there, each one of which was built of but three stones, two upright at the sides and one across them, in such a manner that, although these doorways were very high and broad, the stones sufficed for their entire construction. They were so thick and broad that we were assured there were few like them. There was another hall in these buildings, or rectangular temples, which was erected entirely on round stone pillars, very high and very thick, so thick that two grown men could scarcely encircle them with their arms, nor could one of them reach the finger-tips of the other. These pillars were all in one piece, and, it was said, the whole shaft of a pillar measured 5 ells from top to bottom, and they were very much like those of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, very skilfully made and polished."
Father Burgoa gives a more exact description. He says:
"The Palace of the Living and of the Dead was built for the use of this person [the high-priest of the Zapotecs]. . . . They built this magnificent house or pantheon in the shape of a rectangle, with portions rising above the earth and portions built down into the earth, the latter in the hole or cavity which was found below the surface of the earth, and ingeniously made the chambers of equal size by the manner of joining them, leaving a spacious court in the middle; and in order to secure four equal chambers they accomplished what barbarian heathen (as they were) could only achieve by the powers and skill of an architect. It is not known in what stone-pit they quarried the pillars, which are so thick that two men can scarcely encircle them with their arms. These are, to be sure, mere shafts without capital or pedestal, but they are wonderfully regular and smooth, and they are about 5 ells high and in one piece. These served to support the roof, which consists of stone slabs instead of beams. The slabs are about 2 ells long, 1 ell broad, and half an ell thick, extending from pillar to pillar. The pillars stand in a row, one behind the other, in order to receive the weight. The stone slabs are so regular and so exactly fitted that, without any mortar or cement, at the joints they resemble mortised beams. The four rooms, which are very spacious, are arranged in exactly the same way and covered with the same kind of roofing. But in the construction of the walls the greatest architects of the earth have been surpassed, as I have not found this kind of architecture described either among the Egyptians or among the Greeks, for they begin at the base with a narrow outline and, as the structure rises in height, spread out in wide copings at the top, so that the upper part exceeds the base in breadth and looks as if it would fall over. The inner side of the walls consists of a mortar or stucco of such hardness that no one knows with what kind of liquid it could have been mixed. The outside is of such extraordinary workmanship that on a masonry wall about an ell in height there are placed stone slabs with a projecting edge, which form the support for an endless number of small white stones, the smallest of which are a sixth of an ell long, half as broad, and a quarter as thick, and which are as smooth and regular as if they had all come from one mould. They had so many of these stones that, setting them in, one beside the other, they formed with them a large number of different beautiful geometric designs, each an ell broad and running the whole length of the wall, each varying in pattern up to the crowning piece, which was the finest of all. And what has always seemed inexplicable to the greatest architects is the adjustment of these little stones without a single handful of mortar, and the fact that without tools, with nothing but hard stones and sand, they could achieve such solid work that, though the whole structure is very old and no one knows who made it, it has been preserved until the present day.
"I carefully examined these monuments some thirty years ago in the chambers above ground, which are constructed of the same size and in the same way as those below ground, and, though single pieces were in ruins because some stones had become loosened, there was still much to admire. The doorways were very large, the sides of each being of single stones of the same thickness as the wall, and the lintel was made out of another stone which held the two lower ones together at the top. There were four chambers above ground and four below. The latter were arranged according to their purpose in such a way that one front chamber served as chapel and sanctuary for the idols, which were placed on a great stone which served as an altar. And for the more important feasts which they celebrated with sacrifices, or at the burial of a king or great lord, the high-priest instructed the lesser priests or the subordinate temple officials who served him to prepare the chapel and his vestments and a large quantity of the incense used by them. And then he descended with a great retinue, while none of the common people saw him or dared to look in his face, convinced that if they did so they would fall dead to the earth as a punishment for their boldness. And when he entered the chapel they put on him a long white cotton garment made like an alb, and over that a garment shaped like a dalmatic, which was embroidered with pictures of wild beasts and birds; and they put a cap on his head, and on his feet a kind of shoe woven of many coloured feathers. And when he had put on these garments he walked with solemn mien and measured step to the altar, bowed low before the idols, renewed the incense, and then in quite unintelligible murmurs he began to converse with these images, these depositories of infernal spirits, and continued in this sort of prayer with hideous grimaces and writhings, uttering inarticulate sounds, which filled all present with fear and terror, till he came out of that diabolical trance and told those standing around the lies and fabrications which the spirit had imparted to him or which he had invented himself. When human beings were sacrificed the ceremonies were multiplied, and the assistants of the high-priest stretched the victim out upon a large stone, baring his breast, which they tore open with a great stone knife, while the body writhed in fearful convulsions, and they laid the heart bare,
Human Sacrifice at Mitla
Hall of the Columns, Palace of Milta
By permission of the Bureau of American Ethnology
ripping it out, and with it the soul, which the devil took, while they carried the heart to the high-priest that he might offer it to the idols by holding it to their mouths, among other ceremonies; and the body was thrown into the burial-place of their 'blessed,' as they called them. And if after the sacrifice he felt inclined to detain those who begged any favour he sent them word by the subordinate priests not to leave their houses till their gods were appeased, and he commanded them to do penance meanwhile, to fast and to speak with no woman, so that, until this father of sin had interceded for the absolution of the penitents and had declared the gods appeased, they did not dare to cross their thresholds.
"The second (underground) chamber was the burial-place of these high-priests, the third that of the kings of Theozapotlan, whom they brought hither richly dressed in their best attire, feathers, jewels, golden necklaces, and precious stones, placing a shield in the left hand and a javelin in the right, just as they used them in war. And at their burial rites great mourning prevailed; the instruments which were played made mournful sounds; and with loud wailing and continuous sobbing they chanted the life and exploits of their lord until they laid him on the structure which they had prepared for this purpose.
"The last (underground) chamber had a second door at the rear, which led to a dark and gruesome room. This was closed with a stone slab, which occupied the whole entrance. Through this door they threw the bodies of the victims and of the great lords and chieftains who had fallen in battle, and they brought them from the spot where they fell, even when it was very far off, to this burial-place; and so great was the barbarous infatuation of those Indians that, in the belief of the happy life which awaited them, many who were oppressed by diseases or hardships begged this infamous priest to accept them as living sacrifices and allow them to enter through that portal and roam about in the dark interior of the mountain, to seek the feasting-places of their forefathers. And when any one obtained this favour the servants of the high-priest led him thither with special ceremonies, and after they allowed him to enter through the small door they rolled the stone before it again and took leave of him, and the unhappy man, wandering in that abyss of darkness, died of hunger and thirst, beginning already in life the pain of his damnation, and on account of this horrible abyss they called this village Liyobaa.
The Cavern of Death
"When later there fell upon these people the light of the Gospel, its servants took much trouble to instruct them, and to find out whether this error, common to all these nations, still prevailed; and they learned from the stories which had been handed down that all were convinced that this damp cavern extended more than thirty leagues underground, and that its roof was supported by pillars. And there were people, zealous prelates anxious for knowledge, who, in order to convince these ignorant people of their error, went into this cave accompanied by a large number of people bearing lighted torches and firebrands, and descended several large steps. And they soon came upon many great buttresses which formed a kind of street. They had prudently brought a quantity of rope with them to use as guiding-lines, that they might not lose themselves in this confusing labyrinth. And the putrefaction and the bad odour and the dampness of the earth were very great, and there was also a cold wind which blew out their torches. And after they had gone a short distance, fearing to be overpowered by the stench, or to step on poisonous reptiles, of which some had been seen, they resolved to go out again, and to completely wall up this back door of hell. The four buildings above ground were the only ones which still remained open, and they had a court and chambers like those underground; and the ruins of these have lasted even to the present day.
Palace of the High-Priest
"One of the rooms above ground was the palace of the high-priest, where he sat and slept, for the apartment offered room and opportunity for everything. The throne was like a high cushion, with a high back to lean against, all of tiger-skin, stuffed entirely with delicate feathers, or with fine grass which was used for this purpose. The other seats were smaller, even when the king came to visit him. The authority of this devilish priest was so great that there was no one who dared to cross the court, and to avoid this the other three chambers had doors in the rear, through which even the kings entered. For this purpose they had alleys and passage-ways on the outside above and below, by which people could enter and go out when they came to see the high-priest. . . .
"The second chamber above ground was that of the priests and the assistants of the high-priest. The third was that of the king when he came. The fourth was that of the other chieftains and captains, and though the space was small for so great a number, and for so many different families, yet they accommodated themselves to each other out of respect for the place, and avoided dissensions and factions. Furthermore, there was no other administration of justice in this place than that of the high-priest, to whose unlimited power all bowed.
Furniture of the Temples
"All the rooms were clean, and well furnished with mats. It was not the custom to sleep on bedsteads, however great a lord might be. They used very taste-fully braided mats, which were spread on the floor, and soft skins of animals and delicate fabrics for coverings. Their food consisted usually of animals killed in the hunt—deer, rabbits, armadillos, &c., and also birds, which they killed with snares or arrows. The bread, made of their maize, was white and well kneaded. Their drinks were always cold, made of ground chocolate, which was mixed with water and pounded maize. Other drinks were made of pulpy and of crushed fruits, which were then mixed with the intoxicating drink prepared from the agave; for since the common people were forbidden the use of intoxicating drinks, there was always an abundance of these on hand."