Friday, August 19, 2011

Earthly Confrontation by C.A. Burland

The driving power behind the Aztec dominion over Mexico was the belief in their god, Blue Hummingbird, one of the aspects of the great demiurge, Tezcatlipoca. He was the power of magic, the mysterious Smoking Mirror in which visions were seen. To him the Aztecs attributed the glories of their conquests, and for him the great temple in Tenochtitlan towered into the sky. Blood was constantly offered in his temple at the top of the pyramid. In the dark interior priests poured bowls of human hearts in front of his image glowering in the gloom. No Aztec would have denied that this god had led the tribe from poverty to power, yet they all knew very well that this great ‘shadow’ was also a being of unrelenting cruelty.

The last Great Speaker of the Aztecs, Montezuma, knew better than most that the god of the Aztecs was unreliable. In the early years of his reign the Aztecs had suffered terrible disasters. An army of 16,000 warriors had been destroyed in western Mexico when they had been caught up in a violent mountain storm and hurricane winds. Some were crushed, most were drowned, and few survivors returned to Tenochtitlan. Nevertheless, other wars were started, and they brought in streams of prisoners to be fattened and sacrificed, so that the tribe could become rich, and its terrible patron appeased.

In the midst of the great city, Montezuma was splendid in his isolation. He had at last, by 1508, brought about the fulfillment of the ancient promise that the god had made to his people. The Aztecs ruled all of Anahuac, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In his day, the city was splendidly colorful, its markets constantly busy, its people were well dressed, and its warriors were feared throughout the land. Because of his earlier training as an astrologer- priest Montezuma was well aware of the mutability of fate. Everyday at sunset, midnight and dawn, he observed the sky from his palace roof to divine the course of events. To him, the signs in the sky marked the marching of fate, and his policies were dictated by the positions of the starry symbols of the gods in the night sky, their relation to the planets, the appearance of comets and meteors, all of which gave information to help him amplify the indications in the Tonalpouhalli, the sacred book of fate.

There was, however, a central dichotomy in the spiritual world of Montezuma. He was properly elected to the leadership of the Aztec people, and was therefore dedicated to their patron god, Huitzilopochtli. Their fate and welfare, he realized, depended upon the devotion the nation showed through him to this mighty power. But Montezuma himself was born on a day sacred to the Morning Star, Quetzalcoatl. He was thus directly involved in the strange conflict between these two deities.

From our modern standpoint Tezcatlipoca can be seen as a projection of the ‘shadow’- dark instinctive- side of human nature; a god of war identified with suffering and sacrifice. Quetzalcoatl can be seen as a projection of the fully conscious intelligence of mankind who in all matters of beauty and art was thought to breathe life and inspiration. In Mexican mythology these two gods were part of a great complexity of divinities but the inevitability of their conflict is as clear from the legends in the painted books as it might well be to a psycho-analyst today. Montezuma was well aware of the conflict and strain and must have also believed, possibly because of his own descent from the Quetzalcoatls of the Toltecs, that one day the power of Quetzalcoatl would be restored. The possibility of this return was divined to occur in a year called Ce Acatl (one, arrow-reed), which was the name of Quetzalcoatl as Morning Star, and on the day Chiconaui Ehecatl (nine, wind) which was the birthdate of the first Quetzalcoatal. This combination occurred every 52 years and it was expected only once in the lifetime of Montezuma, in the spring of the year 1519.

In the year 1508 there had been a solar phenomena which the Great Speaker must have seen. A tiny black speck moved slowly and steadily across the face of the sun. It was not the usual sun spot, which might have been confused with it, and Montezuma was well aware that it was the planet Venus in transit. This was a rare event and the jade figure of Quetzalcoatl wearing the sun as his neck ornament, which is now in the collection of the British Museum, was probably a memorial to it. Such a rare event, occurring only once in 300 years, must have been seen as a first warning of the events to come.

Stories came to Mexico a few years later of a strange phenomena. From the eastern coasts, in the Maya country, and soon after from the coasts of the Totonac lands ruled by Montezuma, came tales of strange, giant canoes with wings. From them had come men clad in stone who killed by pointing sticks at people. In many places these strange, black-bearded creatures landed and bartered with the people. Then they sailed away northwards. Montezuma felt that this was the second appearance of the deformed people whom Quetzalcoatl had taken away with him on his retreat from Mexico generations previously. This was, in fact, the trading voyage of the Spanish adventurers Solis and Pinzon. Their map was published in Spain, though the sailing directions had been falsified. It is probable that gossip had spread back to Cuba where young Hernando Cortes was running a small plantation, worked by Carib slaves.

At this period Cortes did not know his fate, but he was hoping one day to make his fortune in some profitable foray among the islands. He was a gentleman of high birth but low fortune. Physically, he was short, and well-groomed, though a fall rom a lady’s window had broken his leg and left him permanently lamed. His complexion was a soft brown, and his black hair and neat beards sett off luminous, dominating eyes. That he would one day be regarded as the symbol of a deity returning to Mexico can never have entered his dreams, though he was fated to live that part.

The third figure in the approaching drama was the the Princess Malinalli of Painalla. She had been born on the day Ce Malinalli (one, grass of sorrow), under special symbols in the sky which indicated that she would, throughout her life, be opposed to the terrible war god of her Aztec people. To protect the child her mother showed a false daughter to the priests, a baby girl that had been born dead to one of her saves, and sent her own child to the Maya people in Yucatan. Later on she was to be known to the Spaniards, who could not pronounce her name, as Marina, and because she was of noble birth they called her Dona Marina. Through her translations and knowledge of Aztec culture, Hernando Cortes was able to capture Montezuma, and conquer the Aztec people.

It had long been known that just as Quetzalcoatl had been overthrown in the past, so in the come time he would return and overthrow his adversaries, and bring a reign of greater peace and justice. This messianic hope was to be realized in a sad and cruel way when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico (spring, 1519) and proceeded to overthrow the Aztec empire. The new Quetzalcoatl appeared as a most ruthless warrior, who not only opposed the god of the Aztecs themselves, but caused the overthrow of all other rival deities throughout Mexico. The debacle was complete and terrifying.

Among the common people, once the terrors of conquest and the accompanying plagues were over, the teachings of the missionaries were accepted. Those black-robed priests, who wore garments very similar to those which had clothed the ancient god, were messengers of Christian peace, and their god had offered himself as the once and only sacrifice for the benefit of all mankind. It seemed to the Mexicans that prophesy was fulfilled, and that the new Quetzalcoatl was a god of peace and justice. They flocked in their tens of thousands to be baptized, to receive the blessing of this new aspect of the Morning Star. Although thy had ample reason to distrust the Christians, who had been enjoined to teach them religion, they held to the new faith. In many ways they translated it into their own ways of thought, so that Easter festivals were though of as celebrations of the return of the god, and of the sweeping away of old evils. In this manner the ancient cult of Quetzalcoatl survived as an aspect of Christianity, but the name of the old god and the temple rituals disappeared, along with the images and cults of many other deities.

In modern Mexico the figure of Quetzalcoatl often replaces the more familiar Santa Claus at New Year parties or in department store windows. The bearer of gifts wears a plume of feathers, and a mask representing the old god, as the bringer of life, of gifts and of happiness to people. In this he has assumed a place that was not really his in the old days, because he was not a god of the regular calendar at all, nor of the changing of the year. Nevertheless, the idea of the gifts of good things are matters in which both the ancient Aztec religion and Christian imagery could well come together. The cult of the god and the poetry associated with him, however, remains as a province of artists and archeologists, rather than the mass of Mexican people. The god appears with tremendous vigor on some of the new frescoes, particularly those by Jose Clemente Orozco, which represent Quetzalcoatl as a great power, like a wind destroying the old dead past and bringing a new era of hope for mankind, and for Mexico in particular.

Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror by C.A. Burland and Werner Forman; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1975

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