Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 5






IN bringing to a close these desultory remarks upon the ruins of Yucatan, I am reminded that there yet remain two of the most important groups, Mayapan and Chichen-Itza, without which the hundred-mile radius around Merida would be incomplete. Mayapan, about thirty miles south of Merida, was the seat of the ancient Maya empire, and the city was called El Pendon de los Mayas—the banner city of the country—by the early Spanish writers on Yucatan. Here, in this ancient city, among the ruins of palaces once occupied by native kings, it would seem most fitting that we should review, though hastily, the aboriginal history of Yucatan, as it has been handed down to us According to the Maya genesis, as interpreted by Spanish priests and monks, the Creator formed the first man of a handful of sacate (or grass) and earth; from the latter came his flesh and bones, and from the grass his skin and his comely appearance. Dwarfs and giants were the first people of this portion of the country, and the former, as usual, always got the better of the latter.

The most ancient traditions seem to point to two distinct immigrations into the peninsula; but it is usually conceded that there existed, in that portion of Central America where Yucatan, Guatemala, and Southern Mexico come together, a great and potent theocratic empire. This was in ages past. Successive immigrations, from the north and from the south, have swept over it, until all distinctive race individuality of the people who lived there has been obliterated. The capital city of this empire was Xibalba (Hibalba), thought to be the Palenque of the present day. The tribes coming down from the north, the Nahuatls, built another city, which they called Tula, or Tulhá, near the present town of Ocosingo, in Chiapas. And if we may place credence in that perhaps mythical "sacred book" of the Quiches called the Ah-Tza, the Itzaes (Ah Tzaes), present inhabitants of Peten, are lineal descendants of the dwellers in Xibalba. Although traces of three distinct immigrations into Yucatan are evident,—the Itzaes, Mayas, and Caribs,—yet they all spoke one tongue, the Maya, at the coming of the Spaniards. The Itzaes founded cities in the northeastern portion of the peninsula, found in ruins to-day: Chichen-Itza, Itzamel, and T'ho, the site of the last occupied by the capital city of Merida.

In the fifth and sixth centuries the Mayas came, followed by the Tutul Xius. The former founded Mayapan, and the latter settled themselves in the region of which Uxmal is the centre. In the strifes that ensued between the Itzaes and Mayas, the latter attained to prominence and ruled the country, while the former retired to Chichen. The head of the ruling family was one Cocom, from whom descended the princes of Mayapan. The increasing importance of the Tutul Xius so alarmed the Maya ruler that he imported troops from Tabasco; but a century later the dreaded residents of Uxmal marched upon Mayapan, and, after a long and bloody struggle, razed it to the ground. About this time the Itzaes, who seem to have been of a more peaceful nature, abandoned their city of Chichen and buried themselves in the vast forests of Guatemala. We shall meet with them again. These events happened in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In 1446, it is chronicled. King Cocom of Mayapan, with all his sons save one, was murdered by his nobles. Less than a century later the Spaniards became lords of the peninsula, and found Mayapan in ruins. It had been destroyed by the murderers of Cocom. Stephens, who visited Yucatan forty years ago, found among the ruins a great circular mound, and some sculptured stones, but of their origin and significance he was ignorant. It was left for another explorer. Dr. Augustus Le Plongeon, to complete the work of investigation. From his latest report to the American Antiquarian Society,—yet in manuscript when this was written,—the following details of his discoveries at Mayapan are gathered. Among the ruins was found a stone, one of the two above mentioned, inscribed with characters. Of this a cast was taken, and sent to New York. The stone was one metre sixty-two centimetres high, and twenty-six centimetres wide. The inscription on it represents the king, Cocom, who was tributary to Chaacmol, king of Chichen-Itza, and whose portrait, full-length, is on the castle wall of Chichen. Dr. Le Plongeon writes:—

"Next we will meet him in the reception-room of Queen Kinich-Kakmo, the wife and sister of the great King Chaacmol. That king, Cocom, is the personage represented on the anta of the castle, in the bas-reliefs of the Queen's Chamber, at Chichen, and on the slab found by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, in Mayapan. One has only to look at his unique, unmistakable nose, his short stature, and towering hat, to become satisfied of the fact of his identity. And then his name,—it is symbolized by a little yellow flower, in some cases closed, in others open. In the Maya dictionary, cocom is a plant with yellow flowers, from the leaves of which, during the feast of Saint John, people make a kind of cigar, Cocom was the name of an ancient Maya dynasty, and is still preserved as an Indian family name among the natives of Yucatan. By the number of feathers in the cap of the king is indicated his exalted rank. The man before him holds a scroll,—and this is proven by Landa, that they had scrolls, written on large leaves, folded and enclosed between two boards. When any of the ancient family of Cocom died, the principal lords cut off their heads and cooked them, in order to clean the meat from the bones, after which they sawed off the hind part of the skull, preserving the front with its jaws and teeth. They then replaced the flesh on the half-skull with a certain putty, giving them the same appearance they had when alive; they then placed them among their cinerary statues, which they had with their idols in their oratorios, and looked upon them with great reverence and love."

On the smaller slab the Doctor found, he says, inscriptions that his knowledge of the Maya tongue enabled him to translate, which were intended for the God of Fire, represented among the Mayas by the same hieroglyph that the Egyptians used for the Sun God, and by the emblems of one of the principal gods of the Assyrians. On the "Gnomon Mound" of Mayapan there were found two stelæ, situated about one hundred metres from the southwest corner of the principal pyramid (named anciently Kukulcan), the first of the kind seen during a long and careful

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exploration of the ruined cities of Yucatan. Of them Dr. Le Plongeon says:—

"Following the detours of an obscure trail, we at last reached the foot of a small mound, eight metres high, eleven metres fifty centimetres wide at the base. The platform (on top), four metres seventy centimetres on the north and south sides by three metres on the east and west, sustained two perpendicular stelæ, forty-five centimetres in diameter and one metre high from the floor, which once was perfectly level and paved with beautifully hewn slabs of stone. To-day it is covered with ten centimetres of loam, the product of three centuries and a half of deposition. The distance between the centres of the stelæ is one metre seventy centimetres, their orientation as perfect as it could be done to-day with our improved instruments."

By careful measurements, Dr. Le Plongeon arrived at the conclusion that the ancient Mayas correctly calculated the true declination of the sun; and he adds that the Maya astronomers divided their astronomical year into twelve months of thirty days each, to which they added the five days when they said the sun was resting. "Here again we find another point of contact with the Egyptians and the Chaldeans." Of course, says the Doctor, by noticing the length of the shadows projected by the stelæ on the smooth floor of the platform, they could know the hour of the day; at night—as the Indians do even to-day—they could tell the time quite accurately by observing the courses of the stars. By placing a style, or any narrow object, on the top of the columns so as to rest on the centres, and noticing when its shadow fell perpendicularly on the platform, and covered exactly the line they had traced for that purpose between the stelæ, they knew when the sun passed their zenith, which phenomenon occurs twice every year, in March and July.

The Doctor remarks that he has adopted the use of the metric standard of linear measure as much from necessity as from choice, and from "the strange discovery that the metre is the only measure of dimension which agrees with that adopted by these most ancient artists and architects." The explorer continues:—

"We cannot suppose that the gnomon was built at random; that the diameter of the stelæ and the distance they are placed from one another are wholly fortuitous. . . . Judging of past humanity by the present, we must of necessity agree that these diameters and this distance of the centres are the result of accurate calculations and knowledge. . . . I have taken for granted that they knew when the sun had reached the tropics, and therefore its greatest declination,—23° 27',—because the days that the declination does not vary they called by a name signifying, according to Pio Perez,[1] the bed or place where the sun rests.
"To sum up: These builders seem to have taken as bases for their calculation the latitude of the place and the declination of the sun when at his resting-place,—as they called the solstitial points. That this manner of computing time was used by the primitive inhabitants of the great metropolis, Chichen Itza, or by those who dwelt in it when at the height of its splendor, when scholars flocked from all parts of the world to consult its wise men, is more than at present we can positively know. . . .

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"We know that in the most remote times they represented the Godhead under the symbol of the mastodon-head. Notwithstanding their great respect for the memory of their ancestors, so strongly inculcated that even to-day they would not fail to prepare the hanal pixan—the food of the souls—and offer it in peculiar places on All-Saints' day, in after ages this emblem—the mastodon-head—became replaced by that of the winged serpent, Kukulcan, or Ahi, even in the city of the holy and wise men, the Itzaes; whilst in Uxmal and other places, where in time the Nahautl religion prevailed, the phallic emblems were coupled with those of the sun, the fire, and the mastodon-head.

"The monuments of these people also show the changes which have taken place in the architectural taste in consequence of alteration in the customs and in the ideas and in the mode of life of the people, caused perhaps by immigrations and invasions,—probably by commercial intercourse and frequent communication by sea and land with the neighboring nations. The ornamentation of the edifices also tells us of the progress of the artists in drawing and sculpture.

"The great mound of Mayapan, which reveals such perfect mathematical symmetry in all its parts, shows that the Maya architects were as well acquainted with the rules of trigonometry as their friends the astronomers. It will call to mind that oldest structure of the plains of Chaldea,—the graduated towers so characteristic of Babylonia, of which the oldest type known in history is the tower of Babel,—and on its top the priests of the Mayas, as the Magi, elevated above the mists of the plain below, could track through the cloudless sky the movements of the stars; instead of cutting out there the hearts of human victims, as a celebrated author suggests. . . .

"This mound, now very dilapidated, is an oblong, truncated pyramid, measuring on the north and west sides at the base thirty-two metres, and fourteen metres on top; on the east and west sides at the base twenty-seven metres, and ten metres on top. On the four faces stairways are cut of sixty steps, each twenty-five centimetres high; it appears as if composed of seven superposed platforms, all of the same height,—one metre seventy centimetres,—each one being smaller than the one immediately below. Throughout Yucatan seven seems to have been the mystic number, as among other ancient nations. In the plains of Babylon there were no stones, and the builders of the 'temple of the seven lights' made the core of the structure with sun-dried clay, and the facings with hard burnt bricks. In Yucatan, where there is no clay, but stones, the core is found of loose stones with blocks of the same material carefully hewn for the facing. The mode of building, however, was identical among the Mayas and the Chaldeans. Again, there is shown an identity of ideas in the artists who decorated the walls at Chichen-Itza and Babylon."

In his essay on the language of the Mayas, Dr. Le Plongeon stated that they employed many words and names common to all, or nearly all, the ancient languages of which we have knowledge; that they used letters and characters belonging to the most ancient Chaldaic alphabet; and their mode of writing, in squares, was similar to that of the Babylonians. He adds:—

"So also we see that their architecture partakes of that of the Egyptians and the Babylonians, besides having a style that belongs to none of these ancient nations. That they had 'perpendicular' pyramids, with their faces to the cardinal points, like the Egyptians, the mound of Mayapan proves. But the great mound situated on the north side of the principal square of Izamal, on the top of which used to be a temple dedicated to Kinich-Kakmo, the queen of Chichen, is an oblique pyramid, the very counterpart of the 'Temple of the Moon' at Mugheir."

The curious reader may find the gist of the preceding statements regarding the civilization of the Mayas in Landa's interesting book, Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan. Even though we may not accept the conclusions of this intrepid explorer, "that the cradle of the world's civilization is this continent on which we live," we must assign to the Maya people an elevated rank among the civilized nations of the world, and great antiquity.

We might note, before leaving Mayapan, that, according to Cogolludo (an old historian, writing in 1655), all the nobles of the country had houses in that city before its destruction, and were exempted from tribute. But now, he says, "these nobles, the descendants of Tutul Xiu, who was the king and natural lord, if they do not work with their own hands, have nothing to eat."

Directly east of Merida, connected by a great high-road, is Izamal, the ancient Itzamal of the Itzaes, founded by them first of any city in the peninsula. Itzamna is the first person mentioned in the annals of the peninsula, a hero apotheosized, and a great leader in the first Itza invasion. "In the centre of a region of waters" they built a city called Itzamal, and here they established the worship of Zamna, consisting of the offerings of flowers and fruit. To this religious centre flocked pilgrims by thousands, and it is thought that the gigantic head of stucco, to-day seen in the city of Izamal, was the object of their idolatry.

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The city itself is quiet, and a desirable place of residence. One of its other attractions is an immense mound, supposed to have been the foundation for an ancient temple; and a paved road is said to lead from this place to the ruins of Tulum. As early as 1549, the Indians, under Spanish guidance, erected here the celebrated monastery of San Antonio. Continuing on from Izamal, bending our course southward, we shall eventually reach the attractive though unfortunate city of Valladolid, thirty-seven leagues distant from Merida. It is celebrated as the first city in which a cotton-mill was erected in Yucatan, in 1834, but has a melancholy interest from its almost complete destruction in the revolution of the Indians, in 1847.

This great uprising of the indigenous race had its origin in the period of independence, in 1821, when Mexico separated from Spain. In Yucatan, as in Mexico, the large landed proprietors were opposed to separation from the mother country, while the bulk of the population, who owned no property, were in favor of it. The question later arose of an amalgamation with Mexico, which gave rise to two parties,—for and against. Both invoked aid from the Indians,—the raza indigena,—and placed arms in their hands, and filled their ears with promises. After the struggle was over and the Mexicans expelled, the Indians were dismissed to their homes in the eastern portion of the peninsula. All the promises made them were evaded, and so they returned sullen and empty-handed—except that they kept the arms—and later used them!

In 1846 local politics ran high between the provinces of Merida and Campeche, and they came to blows. It was the Indians' opportunity; everywhere, in the east, there was a great uprising. The eastern coast was swept with fire and sword. Valladolid, a city of 12,000 inhabitants, and Tekax, with 5,000, were completely abandoned; and gradually all northern, eastern, and southeastern Yucatan seemed to be returning to its primitive owners. The indigenous people ravaged the country, burning, pillaging, murdering, until the whites were panic stricken and fled towards the coast. The red men recollected the centuries of wrong they had endured, and vowed to wage against the white race a war of extermination. The Creole population of Yucatan appealed for aid to the United States, to Mexico, and to Spain. At last, Mexico, having concluded its war with the United States, sent succor, and very gradually the rebels—the sublevados—were driven back. But it was years

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before the country breathed of peace, and even now thousands of square miles are desolate, and hundreds of towns lie in ruins. By this act of calling in aid from Mexico, Yucatan lost her autonomy, and soon after became one of the confederated states of the republic. Valladolid has never recovered from its terrible injuries; although, from its geographical position, and the vast unoccupied country of which it is the centre, it is destined to become again prosperous and populous.

Lying west from Valladolid, about thirty miles, is the largest, and next to Uxmal the most important, group of ruins in Yucatan, that of Chichen-Itza. The ruined structures occupy an area of about two miles, and a high-road passes near them. They are accurately described in various writings, so that I will not do more than enumerate them here. Of these ruins, the most magnificent pile is the "House of the Nuns," very rich in sculpture, while the "Carcel," or "Tower," is the grandest and most conspicuous object in Chichen. The "Gymnasium" contains great stone rings set in the wall, four feet in diameter, and with a sculptured border of serpents. The hieroglyphic carvings are wonderful and beautiful, and the mural paintings, representting warriors in battle and events in the lives of the various rulers of Chichen, are artistic in execution, and the finest that adorn the walls of any buildings yet discovered. A procession of lynxes, or tigers, adorns the cornice of one building, while sculptured slabs and pillars are scattered profusely over the ground.

This was the ancient capital of the Itzaes, after they had been driven from Itzamal and before they sought seclusion in Peten. Various attempts have been made to reconstruct their history, from the scattered fragments left by tradition and from the mural paintings and hieroglyphs, but as yet with little success. Although Stephens gives an exhaustive description of Chichen, yet Norman[2] claims to be the first visitor from a foreign country to describe it from personal observation. "No marks," he says, "of human footsteps, no signs of previous visitors, were discoverable; nor is there good reason to believe that any person, whose testimony of the past has been given to the world, had ever before broken the silence which reigns over these sacred tombs of a departed civilization."

It is known, however, that a portion of Montejo's army marched through here, and found the great buildings a secure defence against the assailing Indians, in the first invasion.

For seven years, that energetic archaeologist, Le Plongeon, has studied the hieroglyphs of Yucatan. A linguist of no mean attainments, adding to a knowledge of modern languages an acquaintance with the Maya, the native tongue of the peninsula, he has had unusual success in his work. It is to him that the world owes the bringing to the light of the beautiful statue of Chaacmol, now in the Mexican Museum. This monolith, "Chaacmol, the Tiger-King," was unearthed by Dr. Le Plongeon at Chichen, in the midst of a dense forest, eight metres below the surface;—found by his powers of divination, the Indians say; but by his knowledge of the hieroglyphs, the Doctor says, on the walls of the near buildings. By almost superhuman exertions, the Doctor raised the great statue, which is over nine feet in length, from its burial-place,—the story of its exhumation reads like romance, but the photographs, taken at successive stages of the work, substantiate the narrative in every particular,—and transported it to what he thought was a place of safety.[3] Alas for his calculations, and for the scientists of the United States! While he was absent, exploring the islands of Cozumel and Mujeres, his precious discovery was seized by the Mexican government and carried to Mexico.

Of the mural paintings of Chichen, the most beautiful and unique in America, the Doctor and his wife have an extensive series of tracings, which I was fortunate enough to be allowed to examine in Merida. Chichen, though only one hundred miles from the capital, is considered rather unsafe at present, owing to its being within the territory of the unconquered Indians, and an escort of soldiers is needed for the last thirty miles of the journey, and while among the ruins. It is to be hoped that, when Dr. Le Plongeon shall have completed his explorations, he will give to the world a connected account of his discoveries, embellished with his photographs and enlivened with the sparkling descriptions of his talented and devoted wife. At present, we are indebted to the American Antiquarian Society[4] for several valuable illustrated papers on these investigations, and especially to the scholarly editor, Mr. Stephen Salisbury, Jr., through whose liberality and unwearied exertions they were published.

The predominant character of these Maya structures, says the historian of Yucatan, Señor Ancona, is that all are built upon an artificial elevation; TLM D117 Chaacmol.jpgCHAACMOL. a pyramid or truncate cone supporting a building more or less vast and grand. The walls are generally of great thickness, many are faced on the exterior with carved stone, and many also present a rich profusion of adornments, sculptured in bas-relief upon their faces.

Busts and human heads, figures of animals, and hieroglyphics—which nobody has yet been able to decipher—constitute in general these adornments. The finest workmanship is displayed in broad and elevated cornices; and the spectator does not know which most to admire in the artist,—the prodigious number of small pieces with which he composed the work, or the beauty and accuracy to nature of the scenes represented. The doors are generally low and the lintels of wood, some richly sculptured. The ceiling is formed by the peculiar American arch, and owing to their construction not much breadth can be got, but great length.

Most of these ruined cities have remained in the silence and obscurity of the wildernesses in which they are immured, ever since the traveller Stephens visited them, more than forty years ago. Kabah, especially, has not had a white visitor, it is said, since that time, until within two years. In June, 1881, this group was visited by the United States Consul, Mr. Louis H. Aymé, his wife, and Mr. Porter C. Bliss, assistant editor of Johnson's Cyclopædia. Mr. Aymé is an enthusiastic explorer, who is indefatigable in his search after objects of interest to the antiquarians of America. Owing to his exertions, there was brought to light an object that had escaped the attention of all previous explorers. It was a rude painting of "a man mounted on horseback." This important discovery was made by Mr. Aymé on June 16th. 1881; and it gives me pleasure to chronicle such a "find" by such a genial gentleman, who was so helpful to me in Yucatan, and who, in company with Mr. Bliss, rode nearly a thousand miles with me, later, in Southern Mexico.

At a later period, Mr. Aymé again visited Kabah, this time in company with the distinguished archaeologist, M. Desiree Charnay, who immediately pronounced it a wonderful discovery, and praised his companion highly. He, M. Charnay, declared it to be "a figure-of a Spanish horseman, with his cuirass, and prancing on a fiery steed": and claimed that his theory—that these ruins have not a great antiquity—was proved completely! Dr. Le Plongeon, however, who claims for the ruined cities of Yucatan that they were hoary with the weight of years when the Parthenon was built, would fain induce us to believe that this picture is a portrait of an ancient worthy named Can, who flourished many centuries agone. In fine, one archaeologist "proves" from the same mural painting, that these ruins are less than one thousand years old, while the other is equally certain they have an antiquity of at least ten thousand years!

Readers of the North American Review for the past few years cannot fail to have noticed that M. Charnay started on his explorations in Central America with preconceived notions as to the age and builders of these cities; and he has ingeniously twisted every discovery into a "proof" in favor of his pet theory; which unfortunate manner of working vitiates all the labor heretofore done.

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  1. "Maya Chronology," by Señor Don Juan Pio Perez, first published in the Appendix to Stephens's "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan."
  2. "Rambles in Yucatan," New York, 1843.
  3. "The reports of his discoveries seem at first wellnigh fabulous, though their authenticity is so well attested as to leave no room for doubt."—John T. Short, "The North Americans of Antiquity."
  4. For detailed descriptions see "The Mayas, the Sources of their History," 1877; "Maya Archaeology," 1879; Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.