The Prehistoric World: or, Vanished Races
E. A. Allen
Part 11 out of 13
council. In the Mexican gens, the council itself was more
restricted. The old men, medicine men, and distinguished men met
in council--but even here, on important occasions, the whole
gens met in council.
Each gens would, of course, elect its own officers. They could
remove them from office as well, whenever occasion required. The
Mexican gentes elected two officers. One of these corresponded
to the sachem among northern tribes. His residence was the
official house of the gens. He had in charge the stores of the
gens; and, in unimportant cases, he exercised the powers of a
judge. The other officer was the war-chief. In times of war he
commanded the forces of the gens. In times of peace he was, so
to speak, the sheriff of the gens.
The next division of the tribe was the phratry--the word
properly meaning a brotherhood. Referring to the outline below,
we notice that the eight gentes were reunited into two
phratries. Mr. Morgan tells us that the probable origin of
phratries was from the subdivision of an original gens. Thus a
tradition of the Seneca Indians affirms that the Bear and the
Deer gentes were the original gentes of that tribe.<15>
In process of time they split up into eight gentes, which would
each have all the rights and duties of an original gens--but,
for certain purposes, they were still organized into
First Phratry, Bear
or Wolf Gens.
Second Phratry, Deer
or Snipe Gens.
Each of these larger groups is called a phratry. All of the
Iroquois tribes were organized into phratries, and the same was,
doubtless, true of the majority of the tribes of North America.
The researches of Mr. Bandelier have quite conclusively
established the fact, that the ancient Mexican tribe consisted
of twenty gentes reunited as four phratries, which constituted
the four quarters of the Pueblo of Mexico.
It is somewhat difficult to understand just what the rights and
duties of a phratry were. This division does not exist in all
tribes. But, as it was present among the Mexicans, we must learn
what we can of its powers. Among the Iroquois the phratry was
apparent chiefly in religious matters, and in social games.
They did not elect any war-chief. The Mexican phratry was
largely concerned with military matters. The forces of each
phratry went out to war as separate divisions. They had their
own costumes and banners. The four phratries chose each their
war-chief, who commanded their forces in the field, and who, as
commander, was the superior of the war-chiefs of the gentes.
In time of peace, they acted as the executors of tribal justice.
They belonged to the highest grade of war-chiefs in Mexico--but
there was nothing hereditary about their offices. They were
strictly elective, and could be deposed for cause. They were in
no case appointed by a higher authority. One of these chiefs was
always elected to fill the office of "Chief of Men;"<16> and, in
cases of emergency, they could take his place--but this would be
only a temporary arrangement.
Ascending the scale, the next term of the series is the tribe.
The Spanish writers took notice of a tribe, but failed to notice
the gens and phratry. This is not to be considered a singular
thing. The Iroquois were under the observation of our own people
two hundred years before the discovery was made in reference to
them. "The existence among them of clans, named after animals,
was pointed out at an early day, but without suspecting that it
was the unit of a social system upon which both the tribe and
the confederacy rested."<17> But, being ignorant of this fact,
it is not singular that they made serious mistakes in their
description of the government.
We now know that the Mexican tribe was composed of an
association of twenty gentes, that each of these gens was an
independent unit, and that all of its members stood on an equal
footing. This, at the outset, does away with the idea of a
monarchy. Each gens would, of course, have an equal share in the
government. This was effected by means of a council composed of
delegates from each gens. There is no doubt whatever of the
existence of this council among the Mexicans. "Every tribe in
Mexico and Central America, beyond a reasonable doubt, had its
council of chiefs. It was the governing body of the tribe, and a
constant phenomenon in all parts of aboriginal America."<18>
The Spanish writers knew of the existence of this council, but
mistook its function. They generally treat of it as an advisory
board of ministers appointed by the "king."
Each of the Mexican gens was represented in this council by a
"Speaking Chief," who, of course was elected by the gens he
represented. All tribal matters were under the control of this
council. Questions of peace and war, and the distribution of
tribute, were decided by the council. They also had judicial
duties to perform. Disputes between different gentes were
adjusted by them. They also would have jurisdiction of all
crimes committed by those unfortunate individuals who were not
members of any gens, and of crimes committed on territory not
belonging to any gens, such as the Teocalli, Market-place,
The council must have regular stated times of meeting;
they could be called together at any time. At the time of
Cortez's visits they met daily. This council was, of course,
supreme in all questions coming before it; but every eighty days
there was a council extraordinary. This included the members of
the council proper, the war-chiefs of the four phratries, the
war-chiefs of the gentes, and the leading medicine men.
Any important cause could be reserved for this meeting, or, if
agreed upon, a reconsideration of a cause could be had. We must
understand that the tribal council could not interfere in any
matter referring solely to a gens; that would be settled by the
The important points to be noticed are, that it was an elective
body, representing independent groups, and that it had supreme
authority. But the tribes needed officers to execute the decrees
of the council. Speaking of the Northern tribes, Mr. Morgan
says, "In some Indian tribes, one of the sachems was recognized
as its head chief; and so superior in rank to his associates.
A need existed, to some extent for an official head of the
tribe, to represent it when the council was not in session.
But the duties and powers of the office were slight.
Although the council was superior in authority, it was rarely in
session, and questions might arise demanding the provisional
action of some one authorized to represent the tribe, subject to
the ratification of his acts by the council."<19>
This need was still more urgent among the Mexicans; accordingly
we find they elected two officials for this purpose. It seems
this habit of electing two chief executives was quite a common
one among the tribes of Mexico and Central America. We have
already noticed that the Mexican gentes elected two such
officers for their purpose. We are further told that the
Iroquois appointed two head war-chiefs to command the forces of
One of the chiefs so elected by the Mexicans bore the somewhat
singular title of "Snake-woman." He was properly the head-chief
of the Mexicans. He was chairman of the council and announced
its decrees. He was responsible to the council for the tribute
received, as far as it was applied to tribal requirements, and
for a faithful distribution of the remainder among the gentes.
When the forces of the confederacy went out to war, he commanded
the tribal forces of Mexico; but on other occasions this duty
was fulfilled by his colleague, who was the real war-chief of
the Mexicans. His title was "Chief-of-men." This is the official
who appears in history as the "King of Mexico," sometimes, even,
as "Emperor of Anahuac." The fact is, he was one of two equal
chiefs; he held an elective office, and was subordinate to
When the confederacy was formed, the command of its forces was
given to the war-chief of the Mexicans; thus he was something
more than a tribal officer. His residence was the official house
of the tribe. "He was to be present day and night at this abode,
which was the center wherein converged the threads of
information brought by traders, gatherers of tribute, scouts and
spies, as well as all messages sent to, or received from,
neighboring friendly or hostile tribes. Every such message came
directly to the 'Chief-of-men,' whose duty it was, before
acting, to present its import to the 'Snake-woman,' and, through
him, call together the council." He might be present at the
council, but his presence was not required, nor did his vote
weigh any more than any other member of the council, only, of
course, from the position he occupied, his opinion would be much
respected. He provided for the execution of the council's
conclusions. In case of warp he would call out the forces of the
confederacy for assistance. As the procurement of substance by
means of tribute was one of the great objects of the
confederacy, the gathering of it was placed under the control of
the war-chief, who was therefore the official head of the
We have thus very imperfectly and hastily sketched the
governmental organization of the Mexican tribe. It is something
very different from an empire. It was a democratic organization.
There was not an officer in it but what held his office by
election. This, to some, may seem improbable, because the
Spaniards have described a different state of things. We have
already mentioned one reason why they should do so--that was
their ignorance of Indian institutions. We must also consider
the natural bias of their minds. The rule of Charles the V was
any thing but liberal. It was a part of their education to
believe that a monarchical form of government was just the
thing; they were accordingly prepared to see monarchical
institutions, whether they existed or not.
Then there was the perfectly natural disposition to exaggerate
their achievements. To spread in Europe the report that they had
subverted a powerfully organized monarchy, having an emperor, a
full line of nobles, orders of chivalry, and a standing army,
certainly sounded much better than the plain statement that they
had succeeded in disjointing a loosely connected confederacy,
captured and put to death the head war chief of the principal
tribe, and destroyed the communal buildings of their pueblo.
We must not forget that, from an Indian point of view, the
confederacy was composed of rich and powerful tribes. This is
especially true of the Mexicans. The position they held, from a
defensive standpoint, was one of the strongest ever held by
Indians. They received a large amount of tribute from subject
tribes, along with the hearty hatred of the same. From the time
Cortez landed on the shore he had heard accounts of the wealth,
power, and cruelty of the Mexicans. When he arrived before
Mexico the "Chief-of-men," Montezuma, as representative of
tribal hospitality, went forth to meet him, extending "unusual
courtesies to unusual, mysterious, and therefore dreaded,
guests." We may well imagine that he was decked out in all the
finery his office could raise, and that he put on as much style
and "court etiquette" as their knowledge and manner of life
The Spaniards immediately concluded that he was king, and so he
was given undue prominence. They subsequently learned of the
council, and recognized the fact that it was really the supreme
power. They learned of the office of "Snake-woman," and
acknowledged that his power was equal to that of the
"Chief-of-men." They even had some ideas of phratries and
gentes. But, having once made up their minds that this was a
monarchy, and Montezuma the monarch, they were loath to change
their views, or, rather, they tried to explain all on this
supposition, and the result is the confused and contradictory
accounts given of these officials and divisions of the people.
But every thing tending to add glory to the "Empire of
Montezuma" was caught up and dilated upon. And so have come down
to us the commonly accepted ideas of the government of the
That these views are altogether erroneous is no longer doubted
by some of the very best American scholars. The organization set
forth in this chapter is one not only in accord with the results
obtained by the latest research in the field of ancient society,
but a careful reading of the accounts of the Spanish writers
leads to the same conclusions.<21> In view of these now admitted
facts, it seems to us useless to longer speak of the government
of the Mexicans as that of an empire.
We have as yet said nothing of the league or confederacy of the
three tribes of Mexico, Tezcuco, and Tlacopan; nor is it
necessary to dwell at any great length on this confederacy now.
They were perfectly independent of each other as regards tribal
affairs; and for the purpose of government, were organized in
exactly the same way as were the Mexicans. The stories told of
the glories, the riches, and power of the kings of Tezcuco, if
any thing, outrank those of Mexico. We may dismiss them as
utterly unreliable. Tribal organization resting on phratries and
gentes, and the consequent government by the council of the
tribe was all the Spaniards found. These three tribes, speaking
dialects of the same stock language, inhabiting contiguous
territory, formed a league for offensive and defensive purposes.
The commander-in-chief of the forces raised for this purpose was
the "Chief-of-men" of the Mexicans.
We have confined our researches to the Mexicans. Mr. Bandelier,
speaking of the tribes of Mexico, remarks: "There is no need of
proving the fact that the several tribes of the valley had
identical customs, and that their institutions had reached about
the same degree of development." Or if such proofs were needed,
Mr. Bancroft has furnished them. So that this state of society
being proven among the Mexicans, it may be considered as
established among the Nahua tribes. Neither is there any
necessity of showing that substantially the same state of
government existed among the Mayas of Yucatan. This is shown by
their architecture, by their early traditions, and by many
statements in the writings of the early historians. These can
only be understood and explained by supposing the same social
organization existed among them as among the Mexicans.
But this does not relegate these civilized nations to savagism.
On the other hand, it is exactly the form of government we would
expect to find among them. They were not further along than the
Middle Status of barbarism. They were slowly advancing on the
road that leads to civilization, and their form of government
was one exactly suited to their needs, and one in keeping with
their state of architecture. When we gaze at the ruins of their
material structures, we must consider that before us are not the
only ruins wrought by the Spaniards; the native institutions
were doomed as well. Traces of this early state of society are,
however, still recoverable, and we must study them well to learn
We have yet before us a large field to investigate; that is, the
advance made in the arts of living among these people. This is
one of the principal objects of our present research. We are
here slightly departing from the prehistoric field, and entering
the domain of history. But the departure is justifiable, as it
serves to light up an extensive field, that is, the manner of
life among the civilized nations just before the coming of the
Spaniards. And first we will examine their customs in regard to
property. We have in a former chapter reverted to the influence
of commerce and trade in advancing culture. The desire for
wealth and property which is such a controlling power to-day was
one of the most efficient agents in advancing man from savagism
to civilization. The idea of property, which scarcely had an
existence during that period of savagism, had grown stronger
with every advance in culture. "Beginning in feebleness, it has
ended in becoming the master passion of the human mind."
The property of savages is limited to a few articles of personal
use; consequently, their ideas as to its value, and the
principles of inheritance, are feeble. They can scarcely be said
to have any idea as to property in lands, though the tribe may
lay claim to certain hunting-grounds as their own. As soon as
the organization of gens arose, we can see that it would affect
their ideas of property. The gens, we must remember, was the
unit of their social organization.
They had common rights, duties, and privileges, as well as
common supplies; and hence the idea arose that the property of
the members of a gens belonged to the gens. At the death of an
individual, his personal property would be divided among the
remaining members of the gens. "Practically," says Mr. Morgan,
"they were appropriated by the nearest of kin; but the principle
was general that the property should remain in the gens."<22>
That this is a true statement there is not the shadow of a
doubt. This was the general rule of inheritance among the Indian
tribes of North America. As time passed on, and the tribes
learned to cultivate the land, some idea of real property would
arise--but not of personal ownership.
This is quite an important topic; because, when we read of lords
with great estates, we are puzzled to know how to reconcile such
statements with what we now know of the nature of Mexican tribal
organization. Mr. Bandelier has lately gone over the entire
subject. He finds that the territory on which the Mexicans
originally settled was a marshy expanse of land which the
surrounding tribes did not value enough to claim.
This territory was divided among the four gentes of the tribe.
As we have already seen, each of these four gentes subsequently
split up into other independent gentes until there were twenty
in all. Each of these gens held and possessed a portion of the
original soil. This division of the soil must have been made by
tacit consent. The tribe claimed no ownership of these tracts,
still less did the head-chief. Furthermore, the only right the
gentes claimed in them was a possessory one. "They had no idea
of sale or barter, or conveyance, or alienation." As the members
of a gens stood on equal footing, this tract would be still
further divided for individual use. This division would be made
by the council of the gens. But we must notice the individual
acquired no other right to this tract of land than a right to
cultivate it--which right, if he failed to improve, he lost.
He could, however, have some one else to till it for him.
The son could inherit a father's right to a tract.
We have seen that the Mexicans had a great volume of tribal
business to transact, which required the presence of an official
household at the tecpan. Then the proper exercise of tribal
hospitality required a large store of provisions. To meet this
demand, certain tracts of the territory of each gens were set
aside to be worked by communal labor. Then, besides the various
officers of the gens, and the tribe, who, by reason of their
public duties, had no time to till the tracts to which, as
members of a gens, they would be entitled, had the same tilled
for them by communal labor. This was not an act of vassalage,
but a payment for public duties.
This is a very brief statement of their customs as regards
holding of lands. It gives us an insight into the workings of
ancient society. It shows us what a strong feature of this
society was the gens, and we see how necessary it is to
understand the nature of a gens before attempting to understand
ancient society. We see that, among the civilized nations of
Mexico and Central America, they had not yet risen to the
conception of ownership in the soil. No chief, or other officer,
held large estates. The possessory right in the soil was vested
in the gens composing the tribe, and they in turn granted to
individuals certain definite lots for the purpose of culture.
A chief had no more right in this direction than a common
warrior. We can easily see how the Spaniards made their mistake.
They found a community of persons holding land in common, which
the individuals could not alienate. They noticed one person
among them whom the others acknowledged as chief.
They immediately jumped to the conclusion that this chief was a
great "lord," that the land was a "feudal estate," and that the
persons who held it were "vassals" to the aforesaid "lord."<23>
We must now consider the subject of laws, and the methods of
enforcing justice amongst the civilized nations. The laws of the
Mexicans, like those of most barbarous people, are apt to strike
us as being very severe; but good reasons, according to their
way of thinking, exist for such severity. The gens is the unit
of social organization; which fact must be constantly borne in
mind in considering their laws. In civilized society, the State
assumes protection of person and property; but, in a tribal
state of society, this protection is afforded by the gens.
Hence, "to wrong a person was to wrong his gens; and to support
a person was to stand behind him with the entire array of his
The punishment for theft varied according to the value of the
article stolen. If it were small and could be returned, that
settled the matter. In cases of greater value it was different.
In some cases the thief became bondsman for the original owner.
In still others, he suffered death. This was the case where he
stole articles set aside for religion--such as gold and silver,
or captives taken in war; or, if the theft were committed in the
market-place. Murder and homicide were always punished with
death. According to their teaching, there was a great gulf
between the two sexes. Hence, for a person of one sex to assume
the dress of the other sex was an insult to the whole gens--the
penalty was death. Drunkenness was an offense severely
punished--though aged persons could indulge their appetite, and,
during times of festivities, others could. Chiefs and other
officials were publicly degraded for this crime. Common warriors
had their heads shaved in punishment.
These various penalties necessarily suppose judicial officers to
determine the offense and decree the punishment. Having
established, on a satisfactory basis, the Mexican empire, the
historians did not scruple to fit it out with the necessary
working machinery of such an organization. Accordingly we are
presented with a judiciary as nicely proportioned as in the most
favored nations of to-day. But when, under the more searching
light of modern scholarship, this empire is seen to be something
quite different, we find the whole judicial machinery to be a
much more simple affair.
Not much need be added on this point to what we have already
mentioned. Each gens, through its council, would regulate its
own affairs, and would punish all offenses against the law
committed by one of its members against another. Of necessity
the decision of this council had to be final. There was no
appeal from its decision. The council of the tribe had
jurisdiction in all other cases--such as might arise between
members of different gentes, or among outcasts not connected
with any gens, or such as were committed on territory not
belonging to any gens.
For this work, the twenty chiefs composing the council were
subdivided into two bodies, sitting simultaneously in the
different halls of the tecpan. This division was for the purpose
of greater dispatch in business. They did not form a higher and
lower court, with power of the one to review the decisions of
the other. They were equal in power and the decisions of both
were final. The decision of the council, when acting in a
judicial capacity, would be announced by their foreman, who was,
as we have seen, the head-chief of the Mexicans--the
Snake-woman. It is for this act that the historian speaks of him
as the supreme judge, and makes him the head of judicial
authority.<24> His decisions were, of course, final, not because
he made them, but because they were the conclusions of
The "Chief-of-men," the so-called "king," did not properly have
any judicial authority. He was their war-chief, and not a judge;
but from the very nature of his office he had some powers in
this direction. As commander-in-chief, he possessed authority to
summarily punish (with death, if necessary) acts of
insubordination and treachery during war. It was necessary to
clothe him with a certain amount of discretionary power for the
public good. Thus, the first runner that arrived from the coast
with news of the approach of the European ships was, by the
order of Montezuma, placed in confinement. "This was done to
keep the news secret until the matter could be investigated, and
was therefore a preliminary measure of policy." Placed at the
tecpan as the official head of the tribe, he had power to
appoint his assistants. But this power to appoint implied equal
power to remove, and to punish.<25>
This investigation into their laws and methods of enforcing
them, carries us to the conclusion already arrived at. It is in
full keeping with what we would expect of a people in the Middle
Status of barbarism. We also see how little real foundation
there is for the view that this was a monarchy. There is no
doubt but that the pueblo of Mexico was the seat of one of the
largest and most powerful tribes, and the leading member of one
of the most powerful confederacies that had ever existed
It may be of interest for us to inquire as to what was the real
extent of this power, and the means employed by the Mexicans to
maintain this power; also how they had succeeded in attaining
the same. They were not by nature more gifted than the
surrounding tribes. The valley of Mexico is an upland basin.
It is oval in form, surrounded by ranges of mountains, rising
one above the other, with depressions between. The area of the
valley itself is about sixteen hundred square miles.
The Mexicans were the last one of the seven kindred tribes who
styled themselves, collectively, the Nahuatlacs. We treat of
them as the Nahuas.
The Nahuas on the north and the Mayas on the south included the
civilized nations. When the Mexicans arrived in this valley,
they found the best situations already occupied by other tribes
of their own family. To escape persecution from these, they fled
into the marsh or swamp which then covered the territory which
they subsequently converted into their stronghold. Here on a
scanty expanse of dry soil, surrounded by extensive marshes,
they erected their pueblo. Being few in numbers they were
overlooked as insignificant, and thus they had a chance to
improve their surroundings. They increased the area of dry land
by digging ditches, and throwing the earth from the same on the
surrounding surface, and thus elevated it. In reality, in the
marshes that surrounded their pueblo was their greatest source
of strength. "They realized that while they might sally with
impunity, having a safe retreat behind them, an attack upon
their position was both difficult and dangerous for the
assailant." They were, therefore, strong enough for purposes of
defense. But they wished to open up communication with the
tribes living on the shore of the great marsh in the midst of
which they had their settlement. For this purpose they applied
to their near and powerful neighbors, the Tecpanics, for the use
of one of the springs on their territory, and for the privilege
of trade and barter in their market. This permission was given
in consideration that the Mexicans become the weaker allies of
the Tecpanics, that is, pay a moderate tribute and render
military assistance when called upon.
The Pueblo of Mexico now rapidly increased in power.
Communication being opened with the mainland, it was visited by
delegates from other tribes, and especially by traders.
They fully perceived the advantages of their location and
improved the same. By the erection of causeways, they entirely
surrounded their pueblo with an artificial pond of large extent.
To allow for the free circulation of the water, sluices were
cut, interrupting these causeways at several places.
Across these openings wooden bridges were placed which could be
easily removed in times of danger.
Thus it was that they secured one of the strongest defensive
positions ever held by Indians. The Tecpanics had been the
leading power in the valley, but the Mexicans now felt
themselves strong enough to throw off the yoke of tribute to
which they were subject. In the war that ensued the power of the
Tecpanics was broken, and the Mexicans became at once one of the
leading powers of the valley. We must notice, however, that the
Mexicans did not gain any new territory, except the locality of
their spring. Neither did they interfere at all in the
government of the Tecpanics. They simply received tribute
Once started on their career of conquest, the Mexicans,
supported by allies, sought to extend their power. The result
was that soon they had subdued all of the Nahua tribes of the
valley except one, that was a tribe located at Tezcuco.
This does not imply that they had become masters of the
territory of the valley. When a modern nation or state conquers
another, they often add that province to their original domain,
and extend over it their code of laws. This is the nature of the
conquests of ancient Rome. The territory of the conquered
province became part of the Roman Empire. They became subject to
the laws of Rome. Public, works were built under the direction
of the conquerors, and they were governed from Rome or by
governors appointed from there.
Nothing of this kind is to be understood by a conquest by the
Mexicans, and it is necessary to understand this point clearly.
When they conquered a tribe, they neither acquired nor claimed
any right to or power over the territory of the tribe. They did
not concern themselves at all with the government of the tribe.
In that respect the tribe remained free and independent.
No garrisons of troops were stationed in their territory to keep
them in subjection; no governors were appointed to rule over
them. What the Mexicans wanted was tribute, and in case of war
they could call on them for troops. Secure in their pueblo
surrounded by water, they could sally out on the less fortunate
tribes who chose to pay tribute rather than to be subject to
Instead of entering into a conflict with the tribe at Tezcuco,
the result of which might have been doubtful, a military
confederacy was formed, into which was admitted the larger part
of the old Tecpanic tribe that had their chief pueblo at
Tlacopan. The definite plan of this confederacy is unknown.
Each of the three tribes was perfectly independent in the
management of its own affairs. Each tribe could make war on its
own account if it wished, but in case it did not feel strong
enough alone, it could call on the others for assistance.
When the force of the confederacy went out to war, the command
was given to the war chief of the Mexicans, the "Chief-of-men."
If a member of the confederacy succeeded in reducing by its own
efforts a tribe to tribute, it had the full benefit of such
conquest. But when the entire confederacy had been engaged in
such conquest, the tribute was divided into five parts, of which
two went to Mexico, two to Tezcuco, and one to Tlacopan.
This co-partnership for the purpose of securing tribute by the
three most powerful tribes of the valley, under the leadership
of Mexico, was formed about the year 1426, just about one
hundred years from the date of the first appearance of the
Mexicans in the valley.
From this time to the date of the Spanish conquest in 1520, the
confederate tribes were almost constantly at war with the
surrounding Indians, "and particularly with the feeble village
Indians southward from the valley of Mexico to the Pacific, and
thence eastward well towards Guatemala. They began with those
nearest in position, whom they overcame, through superior
numbers, and concentrated action, and subjected to tribute.
These forays were continued from time to time for the avowed
object of gathering spoil, imposing tribute and capturing
prisoners for sacrifice, until the principal tribes within the
area named, with some exceptions, were subdued and
The territory of these tribes, thus subject to tribute,
constitutes what is generally known as the Mexican Empire.<27>
But, manifestly, it is an abuse of language to so designate this
territory. No attempt was made for the formation of a State
which would include the various groups of aborigines settled in
the area tributary to the confederacy. "No common or mutual tie
connected these numerous and diverse tribes," excepting hatred
of the Mexican confederacy. The tribes were left independent
under their own chiefs. They well knew the tribute must be
forthcoming, or else they would feel the weight of their
conquerors' displeasure. But such a domination of the strong
over the weak, for no other reason than to enforce an unwilling
tribute, can never form a nation, or an empire.<28>
These subject tribes, held down by heavy burdens--inspired by
enmity, ever ready to revolt--gave no new strength to the
confederacy: they were rather an element of weakness.
The Spaniards were not slow to take advantage of this state of
affairs. The tribes of Vera Cruz, who could have imposed an
almost impassable barrier to their advance through that section,
were ready to welcome them as deliverers.<29> The Tlascaltecans,
though never made tributary to the Mexicans, had to wage almost
unceasing war for fifty years preceding the coming of the
Spaniards. Without their assistance, Cortez would never have
passed into history as the conqueror of Mexico.
A word as to the real power of the Mexicans. Their strength lay
more in their defensive position than any thing else. As we have
just stated, the entire forces of the confederacy were unable to
subject the Tlascaltecans, the Tarasca of Michhuacan were fully
their equal in wealth and power. The most disastrous defeat that
ever befell the forces of the confederacy was on the occasion of
their attack upon this last-named people in 1479. They fled from
the battle-field in consternation, and never cared to renew the
attempt. As to the actual population of the Pueblo of Mexico,
the accounts are very much at variance. Mr. Morgan, after taking
account of their barbarous condition of life--without flocks and
herds, and without field agriculture, but also considering the
amount of tribute received from other tribes--considers that an
estimate of two hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants in the
entire valley would be an excessive number. Of these he would
assign thirty thousand to the Pueblo of Mexico.<30>
This is but an estimate. In this connection we are informed,
that, when the forces of the confederacy marched against
Michhuacan, as just stated, they counted their forces, and found
them to be twenty-four thousand men. This includes the forces of
the three confederate tribes, and their allies in the valley,
and would indicate a population below Mr. Morgan's estimate.
The Spanish writers have left statements as to the population
of Mexico which are, evidently, gross exaggerations. The most
moderate estimate is sixty thousand inhabitants; but the
majority of the writers increase this number to three
The main occupation of the Aztecs, then, was to enforce the
payment of tribute. From the limited expanse of territory at the
disposal of the Mexicans, and the unusually large number of
inhabitants for an aboriginal settlement, as well as the natural
inclination of the Mexicans, they were obliged to draw their
main supplies from tributary tribes. It is human for the strong
to compel the weak to serve them. The inhabitants of North
America were not behind in this respect.<31> This is especially
true of the civilized tribes of Mexico and Central America.
The confederacy of the three most powerful tribes of Mexico was
but a copartnership for the avowed purpose of compelling tribute
from the surrounding tribes, and they were cruel and merciless
in exacting the same.
Our information in regard to this tribute is derived almost
entirely from a collection of picture writings, known as the
Mendoza collection, which will be described more particularly
when we describe their picture writings. The confederacy was
never at a loss for an excuse to pounce upon a tribe and reduce
them to tribute. Sometimes the tribe marked out for a prey,
knowing their case to be hopeless, submitted at once when the
demand was made; but, whether they yielded with or without a
struggle, the result was the same--that is, a certain amount of
tribute was imposed on them. This tribute consisted of articles
which the tribe either manufactured, or was in situation to
acquire by means of trade or war; but, in addition to this, it
also included the products of their limited agriculture.
The same distribution of land obtained among all the civilized
tribes that we have already sketched among the Mexicans. So, a
portion of the territory of each conquered tribe would be set
aside to be cultivated for the use of the confederacy. But, as
the tribe did not have any land of its own, except for some
official purpose, this implies that each gens would have to set
aside a small part of its territory for such purpose. Such lots
Mr. Bandelier calls tribute lots. These were worked by the
gentes for the benefit of the Mexicans. It is to be noticed
right here, that the Mexicans did not claim to own or control
the land; this right remained in the gentes of the
The miscellaneous articles demanded were generally such that
they bore some relation to the natural resources of the pueblo.
For instance: pueblos along the coast, in the warm region of
country, had to furnish cotton cloth, many thousand bundles of
fine feathers, sacks of cocoa, tiger-skins, etc. In other, and
favorable locations for such products, the pueblos had to
furnish such articles as sacks of lime, reeds for building
purposes, smaller reeds for the manufacture of darts.
Illustration of Tribute Sheet.--------------
These facts are ascertained in the Mendoza collection. We are
given there the pictorial symbol, or coat-of-arms, of various
pueblos; also, a pictorial representation of the tribute they
wore expected to pay. The plate is a specimen of their tribute
rolls. The pueblos paying it are not, however, shown.
Considerable can be learned from a study of this collection
--such, for instance, as that the Pueblo of Chala had to pay a
tribute of forty little bells, and eighty copper ax blades.<32>
And, in another place, we learn that the Pueblo of Yzamatitan
was tributary to eight thousand reams of paper. The articles are
here pictured forth; the number is indicated by the flags,
feathers, etc. The tribute of provisions consisted of such
articles as corn, beans, cocoa, red-pepper, honey, and
salt--amounting in all, according to this collection<33> to
about six hundred thousand bushels. Still it will not do to
place too great a reliance on picture records. The number of
tributary pueblos must have been constantly changing.
The quantity of articles intended for clothing was certainly
very great. A moderate quantity of gold was also collected from
a few pueblos, where this was obtainable.
The collection of this tribute was one of the most important
branches of government among the Mexicans. The vanquished stood
in peril of their lives if they failed to keep their part of the
contract. In the first place, the Mexicans took from each
subject tribe hostages for the punctual payment of tribute.
These hostages were taken to the Pueblo of Mexico, and held
there as slaves; their lives were forfeited if the tribute was
refused.<34> But special officers were also assigned to the
subject tribes, whose duty it was to see that the tribute was
properly gathered and transmitted to Mexico. These stewards or
tribute gatherers, are the officers that the early writers
mistook for governors. Their sole business, however, had to do
with the collection of the tribute, and they did not interfere
at all in the internal affairs of the tribe.
Where the forces of the confederacy had conquered a tribe, but
one steward was required to tend to the tribute, but each of the
confederate tribes sent their representative to such pueblos as
had become their own prey, and as sometimes occurred, one pueblo
paid tribute to each of the confederate tribes, it had to submit
to the presence among them of three separate stewards.
We can easily enough see that it required men of ability to fill
this position. They were to hold their residence in the midst of
a tribe who were conquered, but held in subjection only by fear.
To these people they were the constant reminder of defeat and
disgrace. They were expected to watch them closely and report to
the home tribe suspicious movements or utterances that might
come to their notice. We need not wonder that these stewards
were the tokens of chiefs. It was a part of their duty to
superintend the removal of the tribute from the place where
gathered to the Pueblo of Mexico. The tribe paying tribute were
expected to deliver it at Mexico, but under the supervision of
the steward. Arrived at Mexico the tribute was received, not by
the so-called king, the Chief-of-men, but by the Snake-woman, or
an officer to whom this personage delegated his authority.
This officer was the chief steward, and made the final division
of the tribute. We are not informed as to details of this
division. A large part of it was reserved for the use of the
tribal government. It was upon this store that the Chief-of-men
could draw when supplies were needed for tribal hospitality or
for any special purpose. The stores required for the temple, its
priests and keepers were gathered from this source. The larger
division must have gone direct to the stewards of the gentes,
who would set some aside for their official uses, some for
religion or medicine, but the larger part would be divided among
the members of the gentes.
In our review of the social system of the Mexicans we have
repeatedly seen how the organization of gentes influenced and
even controled all the departments of their social and political
system. One of the cardinal principles, we must remember, is
that all the members of a gens stand on an equal footing.
In keeping with this we have seen that all were trained as
warriors; yet the great principle of the division of labor was
at work. Some filled in their leisure during times of peace by
acting as traders; others became proficient in some branch of
work, such as feather work, or making gold and silver ornaments.
Yet under a gentile system of society, persons practising such
callings could never become very rich or proficient, simply
because, being members of different gentes, there could not be
that cooperation and united efforts among workmen in these
various trades and callings that is necessary to advance them to
the highest proficiency. It required the breaking up of the
gentes and substituting for that group a smaller one, our modern
family, as the unit of social organization, before great
progress could be made.
From what we have just said it follows that it is not at all
likely that there was any great extremes in the condition of the
people. No very wealthy or extremely poor classes. This brings
us to consider the condition of trade and commerce among
them. They had properly no such a thing as money, so their
commerce must have consisted of barter or trade and exchange.
Some authorities assert quite positively that they had money,
and mention as articles used for such purposes grains of cacao,
"T" shaped pieces of tin or copper, and quills of gold dust.<35>
But Mr. Bandelier has shown that the word barter properly
designates the transactions where such articles passed. But this
absence of money shows us at once that the merchants of Mexico
were simply traders who made their living by gathering articles
from a distance to exchange for home commodities.
We are given some very entertaining accounts of the wealth and
magnificence of the "merchant princes of Mexico."<36> It needs
but a moment's consideration of the state of society to show how
little foundation there is for such accounts. Mr. Bancroft also
tells us that "throughout the Nahua dominions commerce was in
the hands of a distinct class, educated for their calling, and
everywhere honored by the people and by kings. In many regions
the highest nobles thought it not disgraceful to engage in
Though we do not believe there is any foundation for this
statement, yet trading is an important proceeding among
sedentary tribes. "The native is carried over vast distances,
from which he returns with a store of knowledge, which is made a
part of his mythology and rites, while his personal adventures
become a part of the folk lore."<37> It was their principal way
of learning of the outside world. It was held in equally high
esteem among the Mexicans. Such an expedition was not in reality
a private, but a tribal undertaking. Its members not only
carried into distant countries articles of barter, but they also
had to observe the customs, manners, and resources of the people
whom they visited. Clothed with diplomatic attributes, they were
often less traders than spies. Thus they cautiously felt their
way from tribe to tribe, from Indian fair to Indian fair,
exchanging their stuff for articles not produced at home, all
the while carefully noting what might be important to their own
tribe. It was a highly dangerous mission; frequently they never
returned, being waylaid or treacherously butchered even while
enjoying the hospitality of a pueblo in which they had
We may be sure the setting out of such an expedition would be
celebrated in a formal manner.<38> The safe return was also an
important and joyful event. The reception was almost equal to
that afforded to a victorious war-party. After going to the
temple to adore the idol, they were taken before the council to
acquaint them with whatever they had learned of importance on
their trip. In addition to this, their own gens would give
them appropriate receptions. From the nature of things but
little profit remained to the trader. They had no beasts of
burden, and they must bring back their goods by means of
carriers; and the number of such men were limited. Then their
customs demanded that the most highly prized articles should be
offered up for religious purposes; besides, the tribe and the
gens each came in for a share. But the honors given were almost
as great as those won in war.
The Mexicans had regular markets. This, as we have already
stated, was on territory that belonged to the tribe; not to any
one gens alone. Hence the tribal officers were the ones to
maintain order. The chiefs of the four phratries were charged
with this duty. The market was open every day, but every fifth
was a larger market.<39> They do not seem to have had weights,
but counted or measured their articles. In these markets, or
fairs, which would be attended by traders from other tribes,
who, on such occasions, were the guests of the Mexicans, and
lodged in the official house, would be found the various
articles of native manufacture: cloth, ornaments, elaborate
featherwork, pottery, copper implements and ornaments, and a
great variety of articles not necessary to enumerate.
We must now briefly consider their arts and manufactures.
Stone was the material principally used for their weapons and
implements. They were essentially in their Stone Age.
Their knives, razors, lancets, spear and arrowheads were simply
flakes of obsidian. These implements could be produced very
cheaply, but the edge was quickly spoiled. Axes of different
varieties of flint were made. They also used flint to carve the
sculptured stones which we have described in the preceding
chapter. They also had some way of working these big blocks of
stone used in building. But they were not unacquainted with
metals--the ornamental working of gold and silver had been
carried to quite a high pitch. Were we to believe all the
accounts given us of their skill in that direction, we would
have to acknowledge they were the most expert jewelers known.
How they cast or moulded their gold ornaments is unknown.
They were also acquainted with other metals, such as copper,
tin, and lead. But we can not learn for what purpose they used
lead or tin, or where they obtained it.<40>
Cortez, in one of his letters, speaks of the use of small pieces
of tin as money. But we have already seen that the natives had
not risen to the conception of money. They certainly had copper
tools, and bronze ones. It seems, however, that their bronze was
a natural production and not an artificial one--that is to say,
the ores of copper found in Mexico contain more or less gold,
silver, and tin. So, if melted, just as nature left them, the
result would be the production of bronze.<41> They were then
ignorant of the knowledge of how to make bronze artificially.
This shows us that they had not attained to a true Bronze Age;
and yet the discovery could not have been long delayed.
Sooner or later they would have found out that tin and copper
melted together would produce the light copper that experience
had taught them was the most valuable.
Illustration of Yucatan Axes.---------------
The most important tool they made of copper was the ax. The ax,
in both Mexico and Yucatan, was made as represented in this
illustration. From their shape and mode of hafting them, we see
at once they are simply models of the stone ax; and this recalls
what we learned of the Bronze Age in Europe. At first they
contented themselves with copying the forms in stone.
Illustrations of Carpenter's Ax, Mexican Carpenter, and
Nature, everywhere, conducts her children by the same means to
the same ends. This form of ax is a representation of a
carpenter's hatchet. The next cut is from the Mendoza
collection, and represents a carpenter at work. He holds one of
these hatchets in his hand, and is shaping a stick of timber.
The other cut represents a form of copper tool found in Oaxaca,
where they were once used in abundance. The supposition is that
this implement was used for agricultural purposes--probably as a
hoe. The pieces of T-shaped copper said to have been used as
money, are diminutive forms of this same tool. The statement is
sometimes made that they had a way of hardening copper. "This,"
says Mr. Valentine, "is a hypothesis, often noted and spoken of,
but which ranges under the efforts made for explaining what we
have no positive means to verify or to ascertain." The presence
of metals necessarily implies some skill in mining; but their
ability to mine was certainly very limited. Gold and silver were
collected by washing the sands. We do not know how copper was
mined; the probabilities are that this was done in a very
superficial way. Whenever, by chance, they discovered a vein of
copper, they probably worked it to an easy depth, and then
abandoned it. M. Charney speaks of one such locality, discovered
in 1873. In this case they had made an opening eleven feet long,
five feet wide, and three feet deep. To judge from appearances,
they first heated the rock, and then perhaps sprinkled it with
water, and thus caused it to split up.<42> This is about all we
can discover of their Metallic Age. It falls very far short of
the knowledge of metallurgy enjoyed by the Europeans of the
Bronze Age; and, with the exception of working gold and silver,
it was not greatly in advance of the powers of the North
American aborigines.<43> Certainly no trace of mining has been
discovered at all on the scale of the ancient mines in Michigan.
A few words as to some of their other arts, and we will pass on
to other topics. In manufacturing native pottery, they are
spoken of as having great skill. The sedentary Indians
everywhere were well up in that sort of work.<44> They knew how
to manufacture cotton cloth, as well as cloth from other
articles. We have stated that paper furnished an important
article of tribute. They made several kinds of paper. One author
states that they made paper from the membrane of trees--from the
substance that grows beneath the upper bark.<45> But they also
used for this purpose a plant, called the maguey plant. This was
a very valuable plant to the aborigines, since we are told that
the natives managed to extract nearly as great a variety of
useful articles from it as does an inhabitant of the East Indies
from his cocoa palm. Amongst other articles, they made paper.
For this paper, we are told, "the leaves were soaked, putrefied,
and the fibers washed, smoothed, and extended for the
manufacture of thin as well as thick paper."<46>
They used feathers for plumes, fans, and trimmings for clothing.
The articles the Spaniards are most enthusiastic in praising is
that variety of work known as feather mosaic. They took very
great pains with this sort of work. The workman first took a
piece of cloth, stretched it, and painted on it, in brilliant
colors, the object he wished to reproduce. Then, with his bunch
of feathers before him, he carefully took feather after feather,
arranging them according to size, color, and other details, and
glued each feather to the cloth. The Spanish writers assert that
sometimes a whole day was consumed in properly choosing and
adjusting one delicate feather, the artist patiently
experimenting until the hue and position of the feather, viewed
from different points, and under different lights, became
satisfactory to his eye.<47>
This disregard of time is a thoroughly Indian trait of
character. Years would be spent in the manufacture of a choice
weapon. The impression is given that these feather-workers
formed a craft, or order, and that they lived by themselves.
But this would be such an innovation on the workings of the gens
that there is probably no foundation for it.
We will now consider the subject of religion. We can never judge
of the real state of culture of a people by their advance in the
arts of government and of living alone. Constituted as men are,
they can not help evolving, in the course of time, religious
conceptions, and the result is that almost all the races and
tribes of men have some system of belief, or, at any rate, some
manner of accounting for the present condition of affairs, and
some theory as to a future state. It is true that these theories
and beliefs are often very foolish and childish, still they are
not on that account devoid of interest. From our present
standpoint, we can clearly see that the religions belief of a
people is a very good index of their culture. At first such
conceptions are necessarily rude, but as the people advanced in
culture, they become clearer.
Fearing that we will be misunderstood in the last statement, we
will state to whom it applies. The Christian world hold that God
revealed himself to his chosen people, and that we draw from his
Word what is permitted mortals to know of his government and the
future world. We make no question but that this is true.
But long before there was a Hebrew people there was a
Paleolithic race, who doubtless had some vague, shadowy, ill
defined idea of supernatural power, and sought, in some
infantile way, to appease the same. Afterwards, but long before
the glories of Solomon, a Neolithic people were living in
Palestine, and the same culture was wide-spread over the world.
To this day a large part of the world's inhabitants have never
so much as heard of the Christian religion. It is to such people
that we especially refer.
The religious beliefs of the Indians have not been fully studied
as yet; but, until that is done, it is scarcely possible to
understand and fully weigh what is said as to the religious
beliefs of the Mexicans. What we can discern of the religion of
the Nahua and Maya tribes shows us that it is not at all
probable they had reached a stage of development in which they
had any idea of One Supreme, Over-ruling Power. But our scholars
differ on that point, many contending that the Mexicans
distinctly affirmed the existence of such a God.<48> To form
such conceptions implies a power of reasoning on abstract topics
that is vain to expect of a people in their state of
development. We think, therefore, that the idea that they had
such a belief, arises from a misconception. Let us see if we can
discover how that was.
Nearly all of the North American tribes had some word to express
supernatural power. The Iroquois used for this purpose the words
"oki" and "otkon."<49> The first meaning of these words is
"above." As used by these Indians, however, they expressed the
working of any unseen, mysterious, and, therefore, to them,
supernatural power. There was, however, no idea of personality
or of unity about it. Other Indian tribes had words to express
the same meaning. The English and French explorers translated
these words into their languages in various ways. The most
common is the rather absurd one of "medicine," which has passed
into common use. Thus, to mention one in very frequent use, we
have the expression "Medicine-men"--meaning their priests and
conjurers. The same custom prevailed among the higher class of
sedentary Indians of Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs used
the word "teotl" to express the name meaning; the Mayas, the
word "ku;" the Peruvians, "huaca." But the word used, in each
case, meant not so much a personal supreme-being as it did an
ill-defined sense of supernatural, mysterious power. This point
not being clearly understood, it was quite natural that the
early writers understood by these various expressions their name
of the First Cause.
In the present state of our knowledge, it is certainly very hard
to give an intelligent statement of the religious conceptions of
the Maya and Nahua tribes. Among the Nahuas, their conception of
creative power was that of a pair--a man and wife. These were
not the active agents, however--they engendered four sons, who
were the creators. This seems to be a widely extended form of
tradition. Two authors, writing about fifty years after the
conquest, speak of the four principal deities and statues.
They had a great many idols besides--but four were the
It would be very satisfactory could we frame some theory to
account for this state of things. If we could only be sure that
each god was symbolic of some of the elements--or, if we could
only say that this was but another instance of the use of the
number "four"--and thus connect them with the cardinal points,
it would be very satisfactory to many. The amount of study that
has been bestowed on this question is very great, and it is very
far from being settled. Each of these four was the principal, or
guardian, deity of a particular tribe.<50> All of these appear
in native traditions as historical personages, as well as
deities. It is for this reason that Mr. Bandelier concludes that
the "four principal gods were deified men, whose lives and
actions became mixed up with the vague ideas of natural forces
As prominent a figure as any in Central American Mythology is
Quetzalcohuatl; and we can form a good idea of the force of the
preceding remarks by considering this case. The name is a
compound of two words, "quetzal-cohuatl"--and is, says Mr.
Bandelier, a fair specimen of an Indian personal name. He tells
us that the meaning is "bright," or "shining snake." Others have
translated it, "feathered serpent." We have referred to the
attempt to show that the tablet of the cross, at Palenque, had
reference to him. Those who think he was the nature-god of the
Nahuas find a great deal of significance in the name.<52>
Mr. Bandelier, after carefully considering all reference to him
by the early writers, shows that it is quite as likely that
Quetzalcohuatl "was a man of note, whose memory was afterward
connected with dim cosmological notions." It is plain that our
idea of the culture of the Mexicans will vary according as we
consider the base of this myth to be a man, or the forces in
nature producing the fertilizing summer rain.<53>
The worship of Quetzalcohuatl was very widely extended; but it
was mostly confined to the Nahua tribes. But there are somewhat
similar traditions among the Maya tribes; and this is one of
those few points which, like the similarity of their calendar
systems, seems to point to a close connection in early times.
The Quiches have a very similar myth. Briefly, it is to the
effect that four principal gods created the world. One of these
was named Gucumatz--meaning, also, shining, or brilliant snake.
Some think that this is the same personage as Quetzalcohuatl,
and from this fact show how true it is that the operations of
the forces of nature everywhere affect the minds of men in a
similar manner.<54> Others will not, however, go as far as this,
and will only say there is a similarity between the two
characters. The tribes in Yucatan also have a tradition of
Cuculcan, whose name means the same as the two already
mentioned. The authority who refers to him speaks of him only as
a man. The Quiche legend, already referred to, speaks of
Gucumatz only as a god. The Nahua traditions of Quetzalcohuatl,
as we have seen, are confused accounts of a man and a god.
The traditions having reference to the earthly career of
Quetzalcohuatl represent him as having considerable to do with
Tulla and Cholula. At Tulla he appears in the light of a great
medicine-man, or priest; at Cholula, as a sachem. Still other
traditions represent him as a great and successful warrior.
None of these characters are incompatible with the others, from
an Indian point of view. These traditions are so hopelessly
confused, that it is doubtful if any thing of historical value
can be gained from them. As a deity, he was worshiped as god of
the air or wind. Why he should be so considered is answered in
various ways. If, reasoning from his name, we choose to believe
he is a nature-god--as such standing for the thunder-storm,
clouds of summer--then, as the winds "sweep the path for the
rain-clouds," he would be considered their god. Also, following
out this line of thought, we can see how, as the god which
brings the fertilizing summer rain, he would be considered the
god of wealth, and the patron deity of traders.
We must not lose sight of the fact that all these traditions are
most woefully mixed; that, since the conquest, many ideas from
other than native sources have been engrafted on them; and,
furthermore, that other explanations that are worth considering
can be presented. The horticultural tribe located at Cholula had
Quetzalcohuatl for their tutelar deity. Their crops depend upon
the timely descent of the rain. What more natural than that they
should regard such rains as sent by him? This pueblo was also
famous for its fairs. "By its geographical position, its natural
products, and the industry of its people," it became a great
trading market. Near it was raised cochineal dye, in large
quantities. This was eagerly sought after by traders from a
distance. Cholula was also famous for its pottery.
The Tlaxcaltecos told Cortez that the inhabitants of Cholula
were a tribe of traders; what more natural, then, than that
their tutelar deity should become, in the eyes of foreign
tribes, the god of traders.<55>
Quetzalcohuatl was but one of the four principal gods.
The tutelar deity of the Mexicans was Huitzilopochtli.
His altars were almost daily wet with the blood of sacrificed
victims. No important war was undertaken, except with many
ceremonies he was duly honored. If time were so short that
proper care could not be bestowed on the ceremonies, then there
was a kind of deputy god that could be served in a hurried
manner that would suffice.<56> After a successful battle, the
captives were conducted at once to his temple, and made to
prostrate themselves before his image. In times of great public
danger, the great drum in his temple was beaten. The Spaniards,
by dire experience, knew well the meaning of that awful sound.
Illustration of Huitzilopochtli.------------
The plate represents what was probably the idol of
Huitzilopochtli. "It was brought to light in grading the Plaza
Mayor in the City of Mexico in August, 1790. It was near the
place where the great Teocalli stood, and where the principal
monuments of Mexico were. They were thrown down at the time of
the conquest and buried from sight. It is an immense block of
bluish-gray porphyry, about ten feet high and six feet wide and
thick, sculptured on front, rear, top and bottom, into a most
complicated and horrible combination of animal, human, and ideal
forms."<57> This idol is generally stated to be that of the
goddess of death. But Mr. Bandelier, after carefully reviewing
all the authorities, concludes that it represents the well-known
war-god of the Mexican tribe.<58>
To properly conduct the services in honor of these various gods,
required established rites and a priesthood. What we call
"Medicine men" wizards, and names of similar import among the
northern tribes, were more correctly priests. There was no tribe
of Indians so poor but what they had these priests. But we would
expect this office to increase more in power and importance
among the southern Indians. Among the Iroquois, we are told each
gens elected certain "keepers of the faith." These included
persons both male and female. Their principal duty was to see
that the feast days were properly celebrated. From what we know
of the gens we feel confident that they would be perfectly,
independent in religious matters as well as in other respects.
Consequently it is not probable that there was even in Mexico
any hereditary caste of priests.<59>
However set aside, or chosen, or elected, we have every reason
to believe that the organization of the priesthood was
systematic. The aspirant for the office had to acquaint himself
with the songs and prayers used in public worship, the national
traditions, their principles of astrology, so as to tell the
lucky and unlucky days. When admitted to the priesthood, their
rank was doubtless determined by meritorious actions.
Successes in war would contribute to this result as well as
sanctity, a priest who had captured several prisoners ranking
higher than one who had captured but one, and this last higher
than the unfortunate who had taken none.<60> We must not forget
that war was the duty of all among the Mexicans. The priests
were not in all cases exempt; part of their duties may have been
to care for the wounded. It is not likely that the priests of
any one god ranked any higher than the priests of others, or had
any authority over them.
This body of priests of whom we have just treated concerned
themselves a great deal with the social life of the Mexicans,
and their power was doubtless great. Their duties commenced with
the birth of the child, and continued through life. No important
event of any kind was undertaken without duly consulting the
priests to see if the day selected was a lucky one. The Nahuas
were, like all Indians, very superstitious, so there was plenty
of work cut out for the priests. Into their hands was committed
the art of explaining dreams, fortune-telling, astrology, and
the explanation of omens and signs. Such as the flight and songs
of birds, the sudden appearance of wild animals; in short, any
unexpected or unusual event, was deemed of sufficient importance
to require in its explanation priestly learning. In addition
there was the regular routine of feasts.<61> We have seen what a
multitude of gods the Nahuas worshiped. Like all Indian people,
they were very fond of feasts and gatherings of that character;
therefore feast days in honor of some one of the numerous
deities were almost constantly in order, and every month or two
were feasts of unusual importance. The most acceptable sacrifice
to these gods, and without which no feast of any importance was
complete, was human life.
This introduces us to the most cruel trait of their character.
It was not alone true of the Mexicans, but of all the Nahua
tribes and of the Mayas, though in a less degree. On every
occasion of the least importance victims were sacrificed.
Any unusual event was celebrated in a similar manner. Before the
departure of a warlike expedition, the favor of Huitzilopochtli
was sought by the sacrifice of human life; on the return of the
same, similar scenes were enacted. On all such occasions the
more victims the better. These victims were mostly captives
taken in war, and wars were often entered into for the express
purpose of procuring such victims. They were even made a subject
of tribute. Devout people sometimes offered themselves or their
children for the sacrifice. The number of victims, of course,
varied from year to year, but it is possible that it counted up
into the thousands every year.
What we are able to gather from the religious beliefs of the
civilized nations sustains the conclusions we have already
arrived at in reference to their culture. We can but believe
this had been greatly overrated. It is the religion of
barbarians, not of a cultivated and enlightened people the
historians would have us believe in. It is a religion in keeping
with the character of the people who had confederated together
for the purpose of compelling unwilling tribute from weaker
tribes. It is in keeping with what we would expect of a people
still in the Stone Age, who still practised communism in living,
and whose political and social organization was founded on the
gens as a unit.
It will not be out of place to devote some space to a
consideration of their advance in learning; and first of all let
us see about their system of counting or numeration.
This knowledge, as Mr. Gallatin remarks, must necessarily have
preceded any knowledge of astronomy, or any effort to compute
time. They must have known how to count the days of a year
before they knew how many days it contained. We all know how
natural it is for a child to count by means of his fingers.
This was undoubtedly the first method employed by primitive
man. Proof of this is found in the wide extended use of the
decimal system. Among the civilized nations, traces of this
early custom are still preserved in the meaning of the words
used to express the numbers.
To express the numbers up to twenty, small dots or circles were
used--one for each unit. For the number twenty they painted a
little flag, for the number four hundred, a feather; and for
eight thousand, a purse or pouch. The following table represents
the method of enumeration employed by the Mexicans. But it is
necessary to remark they used different terminations for
Illustration of Mexican System of Numeration.----------
Substantially the same system of numeration prevailed among all
the Nahua tribes and the Mayas. It will be seen from this table
that the only numbers having simple names are one, two, three,
four, five, ten, fifteen, twenty, four hundred, and eight
thousand. The other names are compounds of these simple names.
It is also easy to understand their method of pictorial
representation. In reference to the flag, the feather, and the
purse, we must remark that, when these were divided into four
parts, only the colored parts were counted. The collective
number, used among them much as we use the word dozen, was
always twenty; but queerly enough their word for twenty varied
according to the object to be counted. The regular word given in
the table was "pohualli." In counting thin objects that could be
arranged one above the other, the word twenty was "pilli."
Objects that were round and plump and thus resembling a stone,
were counted with "tetl" for twenty, and other words for
The division of time or their calendar system, is one that was
thought to show great advance in astronomical learning, but of
late years it has been shown that this also was overrated.
This question of how to keep a record of time was a difficult
one for primitive man to solve; that is, when he began to think
about it at all. A long while must have elapsed, and
considerable advance in other respects been made before the
necessity of such a thing occurred to them. The increase and
decrease of the moon would form a natural starting point. It is
well known that this is about as far as the knowledge of the
Indians extended. The Maya word for month means also moon,
showing this was their earliest system of reckoning time.<64>
Illustration of Table of Days.--------------------
The various Nahua and Maya tribes of Mexico and Central America
had reached about the same stage of development. But their
calendar system is so similar that it affords a strong argument
of the original unity of these people.<65> All of the civilized
tribes had months of twenty days each, and each of these days
had a separate name, which was the same for every month of the
year. This period of twenty days was properly their unit of time
reckoning. It is true they had smaller divisions,<66> but for
all practical purposes, they were ignored. As none of these
tribes possessed the art of writing, they had to represent these
days by means of hieroglyphics. The following table shows the
Mexican and Maya days, the meaning of each, and the pictorial
sign by which they were represented. We must notice that the
Maya hieroglyphics look more arbitrary, more conventional than
the Mexican. This is interesting, because some of our scholars
now believe the Mayas were the inventors of the calendar.
Their hieroglyphics, therefore, as being the older of the two,
should appear more conventional. In the Mexican hieroglyphics
for the days, we can still trace a resemblance to the natural
objects they represent; in the Maya hieroglyphics, this
resemblance has disappeared.
It is not out of place to theorize as to the facts already
mentioned. The first thing that strikes us is that they should
have chosen twenty days for a unit of time. There must have been
some reason lying back of this selection. It would have been
more natural for them to have chosen a number of days (say
thirty) more nearly corresponding to the time from one new moon
to another. Whether we shall ever learn the reason for choosing
this number of days is doubtful; but Mr. Bandelier has given us
some thoughts on this subject, which, though he is careful to
state are not results, but mere suggestions, seem to us to have
some germs of truth, the more so as it is fully in keeping with
He points out that many of the names for these days mean the
same as the names of the gens in the more northern Indian
tribes. Thus seven of the days have the same meaning as the
names of seven of the nine gens of the Moqui tribe in Arizona.
He, therefore, suggests that the names of these twenty days are
the names of the twenty gens of the aboriginal people from whom
have descended the various civilized tribes under consideration.
Indeed, this is expressly stated to be the method of naming the
days adopted by the Chiapanecs, one of the tribes
As soon as the people commenced to take any observation at all,
they would perceive that it took just about eighteen of these
periods of twenty days to make a year. So the next step appears
to have been the division of the year into eighteen months.
These months received each a name, and were of course designated
by a hieroglyphic. The names of the Mexican months seem to have
been determined by some of the feasts happening therein.
There is great diversity among the early writers both as to the
names of these months, and the order in which they occur, as
well as by the hieroglyphics by which they are represented.<68>
It does not seem worth while to give their names and meaning.
We give a plate showing the name, order in which they occur, and
hieroglyphic symbol of the Maya months. In point of fact, the
months were very little used, as we shall soon see it was not
necessary to name the month to designate the day; but of
Illustration of Maya Months.---------
But it would not take these people very long to discover that
they had not hit on the length of a year. Eighteen months, of
twenty days each, make only three hundred and sixty days; so the
next step would be to add on five days to their former year.
As these days do not make a month, they were called the nameless
days. They were considered as being unlucky--no important
undertaking could be commenced on one of them. The child born
therein was to be pitied. But we will see that the expression,
"nameless days" was hardly the case among the Mayas, though it
was among the Mexicans.
Perhaps this will be as good a place as any to inquire whether
they had exact knowledge of the length of the year. As every one
knows, the length of the year is three hundred and sixty-five
and one quarter days, or very nearly; and for this reason we add
an extra day to every fourth year. We would not expect to find
this knowledge among tribes no farther advanced than we have
found these to be. If, as our scholars suspect, the Maya be the
one from which the others were derived, they would be apt to
possess this knowledge, if known. Perez, however, could find no
trace of it among them.<69> Many authors have asserted that the
Mexicans knew all about it. Some say they added a day every four
years; others, that they waited fifty-two years, and then added
thirteen days; and some, even, give them credit for still closer
knowledge, and say they added twelve and one-half days every
fifty-two years.<70> Prof. Valentine, who has made their
calendar system a special study, concludes that they knew
nothing at all about the matter.<71>
The beginning of the year is variously stated. Among the
Mexicans it seems that, while the authors differ very much, all
but one places it on some day between the second day of February
and the tenth of April. As their word for year means "new
green," it is probable they placed its commencement about the
time new grass appeared. The Mayas are said to have placed the
commencement of the year about the sixteenth of July. As this
happens to be just about the time that the sun is directly
overhead in Yucatan, it has been surmised that the natives took
astronomical observations, and tried to have their year commence
at that time. But it must be manifest that, if they did not
possess a knowledge of the true length of the year, and so make
allowance for the leap-year, in the course of a very few years
they would have to revise this date.
Refer once more to the Maya table of days. Suppose the first day
of the year to commence with the day Kan. As there are twenty
days in a month, we see that the second month would also
commence with Kan. In like manner, Kan would be the first day of
every month of that year. When the eighteen months were past,
there would still remain the five days to complete the year.
Now, although they were said to be nameless days, the Mayas gave
them names. The first day was Kan, the second day Chichan, the
third day Quimij, the fourth day Manik, the fifth day Lamat.
The regular order of days we see. They were now ready to
commence a new year.
The next day in the list is Muluc. This becomes the first day of
the first month of the new year. But, being the first day of the
first month, it was the first day of every month of that year.
At the end of the eighteen months of that year, the five days
would have to be named in their order again, which would carry
us down to Gix, the first day of the first month of the third
year. It would also be the first day of every month of that
year. Similarly we see that Cavac would be the first day of
every month of the fourth year. The fifth year would commence
again with Kan. So we see that four of these twenty days became
of more importance than the others. The years were named after
them. The year in which the month commenced with Kan was also
called Kan. The same way with the other days. So the name of the
year was either Kan, Muluc, Gix, or Cavac. These four days were
called "carriers of the year;" because they not only gave the
name to the year, but because the name of the year was also the
name of the first day of every month of that year.
The foregoing will help us to understand the Mexican method.
Let us refer now to the list of Mexican days. The first day of
the first month was Cipac. For the same reason as above set
forth, this would be the first day of every month of the year.
The five extra days either were not named at all, or at any rate
they were not counted off in the table of days. The consequence
was that Cipac was the first day of every month; for we have
just seen that it was the first day of every month of the first
year. At the end of the eighteen months the five nameless days
would come in; but, as they did not form part of a month, were
not named. The first day of the first month of the next year
would be named as if they had not occurred.<72> But, when they
came to name the years, we find they proceeded on exactly the
same principle as the Mayas. Thus four of the twenty days,
occurring just five days apart, were taken to name the years.
These days were Tecpatl, Calli, Tochtli, and Acatl.<73>
Mr. Bandelier, who made the valuable suggestion in regard to the
origin of the names of the days, has also suggested that,
inasmuch as there are four of the days more prominent than the
others, they may signify four original gentes, from which the
others have come. It seem to us, however, when we notice they
are just five days apart, that the system pursued by the Mayas
in naming their years explains the whole matter.
Before we mention the longer periods of time in use among them
we must refer to another mode of reckoning time, and trace the
influence of this second method on the one already named.
The method already explained seems to have been a perfectly
natural one--the second method is founded on superstition.
A large part of the duties of the priests, we remember, was to
determine lucky and unlucky days, and in soothsaying. For this
purpose they made a peculiar division of time, which we will now
try and explain.
For some cause or other, thirteen was a number continually
recurring in their calendar. We can perceive no reason why it
should have been chosen. It has been suggested that it was just
about the time from the appearance of a new moon to its full.
Be that as it may, the number of days thirteen comes very near
to what we would call a week. Among the Mexicans, and probably
among the Mayas, these thirteen days were divided into lucky,
unlucky, and indifferent days, and were supposed to be under the
guidance of different gods. The priests had regularly painted
lists of them, with the deities which governed them. These lists
were used in fortune telling.
We must now inquire as to how they kept track of the years.
The Mayas named their next longer period of time an ahau.
There is some dispute as to what number of years it meant.
Most of the early writers decide that it was twenty years;<74>
but Perez, whose work we have already referred to, contends that
it was twenty-four years. And this conclusion seems to be
confirmed by a careful study of some of their old
manuscripts.<75> Thirteen of these ahaus embraced their longest
period of time, known as an ahau-katun. It had a length of
either two hundred and sixty or three hundred and twelve years,
according as we reckon either twenty or twenty-four years to an
ahau. It may be that the length of an ahau varied among the
different tribes of the Mayas.
The Mexicans also had this week of thirteen days. Twenty of
these weeks, or two hundred and sixty days, formed that part of
the year they called the moon-reckoning; the remainder of the
year was the sun-reckoning. Their longer period of time was also
based on this number. A period of thirteen years they called a
tlapilli; four of these constituted a cycle equal to fifty-two
years. The end of this cycle was anxiously awaited by the
Mexicans. They supposed the world was to come to an end on one
of these occasions. As the time drew near, the furniture was
broken, the household gods were thrown into the water, the
houses were cleaned, and finally, all the fires were
extinguished. As the last day of the cycle drew to a close, the
priests formed a procession, and set out for a mountain about
six miles from Mexico. There an altar was built. At midnight a
captive, the bravest and finest of their prisoners, was laid on
it. A piece of wood was laid on his breast, and on this fire was
built by twirling a stick. As soon as fire was produced, the
prisoner was killed as a sacrifice. The production of new fire
was proof that the gods had granted them a new period of
To understand how the years in this cycle were arranged and
numbered, we must refer once more to the Mayas, for though they
did not use the cycle themselves, yet they give us a hint as to
how it was obtained, and afford one more reason why we should
think the Mayas were the originators of this calendar system.
We give a table showing the arrangement of the days of the year
among the Mayas. We will take the year Kan--that is, we
remember, when Kan was the first day of every month. We would
naturally think they would describe a day by giving the name of
the day and the month--as, the day Kan, of the month Xul, or the
first day of the month Xul--but instead of so doing, they made
use of the period of thirteen days.
For instance, we see, by looking at the table, that the day ten
Kan can not be any other day during the year than the day above
mentioned; so that, for all purposes, it is sufficient to give
the day and its number in the week. We notice, however, that the
last five columns of figures for week days of thirteen are just
the same as the first five. But this did not confuse any, for
the last five columns of days belong to the "sun-reckoning," the
others to the moon-reckoning. And though the number of the day
in the week was the same, yet a different deity ruled over them
than in the corresponding days of the first five columns. We can
not affirm that we know this to be true of the Mayas.
Such, however, we know to be the case among the Mexicans.<76>
Illustration of Almanac for Maya Year "Kan"----------------
Now we notice in this almanac that the last day of the year Kan,
is number one of the week. As the count goes right along, the
first day of the next year, Muluc, must be number two. If we
would make an almanac for that year, we would find the first day
of the third year would be number three of the week. If we were
to continue this, we would find that the first days of the
years, would range from one to thirteen. This table shows the
number in the week of the first day of the first fourteen years.
The first day of the fourteenth year would be number one of the
week again, but this time one Muluc, and not Kan. If we would
continue our researches, we would quickly discover that
fifty-two years would go by before we would have a year Kan in
which the first day of the year would be number one again.
No. in the week
of the first day Years.
of the year.
We think the above explains the origin of the Mexican cycle of
fifty-two years. The Mayas either never had this cycle, or had
abandoned its use.<77> The Mexicans however, used this period of
time, and they numbered their years in it in such a way that we
can not explain it, unless we suppose they derived it in some
such a way as just set forth. We give a table showing the order
of the years in a cycle, and also notice that all that was
needed was the number and name of the year to show at once what
year of the cycle it was. The year seven Calli, for instance,
could never be any other year than the twentieth of
ARRANGEMENT OF YEARS IN A MEXICAN CYCLE.
No. Name of the Years.
1 Tochli...... Acatl......... Tecpatl...... Calli..........
2 Acatl....... Tecpatl....... Calli........ Tochli.........
3 Tecpatl..... Calli......... Tochli....... Acatl..........
4 Calli....... Tochli ....... Acatl........ Tecpatl........
5 Tochli...... Acatl......... Tecpatl...... Calli..........
6 Acatl....... Tecpatl....... Calli........ Tochli.........
7 Tecpatl..... Calli......... Tochli....... Acatl..........
8 Calli....... Tochli........ Acatl........ Tecpatl........
9 Tochli...... Acatl......... Tecpatl...... Calli..........
10 Acatl....... Tecpatl....... Calli........ Tochli.........
11 Tecpatl..... Calli......... Tochli....... Acatl..........
12 Calli....... Tochli........ Acatl........ Tecpatl........
13 Tochli...... Acatl......... Tecpatl...... Calli..........
Illustration of Day Date.-----------------------
Illustration of Year Date.----------------------
To express the dates, they of course painted the hieroglyphic of
the day, and dots for the number of days. This cut, for
instance, expresses the day-date "seven Acatl." They generally
wrote the dots in sets of five. Seven was sometimes expressed in
the above manner. When they wished to express a year-date, they
made a little frame and painted in the hieroglyphics of the
year, and dots for the number. This date here expressed is their
thirteen Acatl, which, by the above table, is seen to be the
twenty-sixth year of the cycle.
We have already dwelt too long on this part of the subject.
Glancing back over the ground, we see there is nothing implying
astronomical knowledge, more than we would expect to find among
a rude people. We find there are several particulars of the
Mexican system which we could not understand, except by
reference to the Maya system. It would bother us to explain why
they should choose the days Tochli, Acatl, Tecpatl, and Calli,
to be the names of their years, if we did not know how the Mayas
proceeded. We would be at a loss to explain why they choose the
number of fifty-two years for the cycle, and arranged their
years in it as they did, if we had not learned the secret from
the construction of the Mayas' almanac. From this comparison, we
should say the Mexican calendar was the simpler of the two.
As the Mayas had twenty days in the month, and, for priestly
use, weeks of thirteen days, so they took twenty years, which,
as they imagined, were supported by four other years, as a
pedestal for their next longer period, the ahau; and for
apparently no other reason than that they had weeks of thirteen
days, they took thirteen of these ahuas for their longest period
of time. They did not use the cycle of fifty-two years, but they
numbered their years in such a way that, in effect, they were
possessed of it. The Mexican did away with all but the cycle of
Illustration of Calendar Stone.---------------
No account of the calendar system of the Mexicans would be
complete without reference to the so-called calendar stone.
The stone, the face of which is sculptured as represented in
this cut, was dug up from the square in front of the cathedral
of the City of Mexico, where it had been buried in 1557.
When the temple was destroyed, this stone still remained entire.
Finally the authorities, fearing it attracted too much attention
from the natives, ordered it buried. It was brought to light
again in 1790, but its early history was completely forgotten.
The astronomer Gama pronounced it a calendar stone, and his
interpretation of the characters engraved on it have been the
foundation for the idea that the Mexicans had considerable
knowledge of astronomy.<79> Prof. Valentine and others have,
however, shown that it was simply a sacrificial stone, which the
artist had decorated in a peculiar manner. This stone is
considered by some to be so important that we will condense
Prof. Valentine's description of it as being the best at hand.
Not all of out scholars accept it, however. The central figure
is the face of the sun-god. It is decorated in a truly savage
style. It has ear-rings, neck-chain, lip-pendant, feathers, etc.
The artist's design has been to surround this central figure
with all the symbols of time. We notice on each side of the sun
a small circle or oval with hieroglyphics resembling claws.
In Mexican traditions these represent two ancient astrologers
who were supposed to have invented the calendar. According to
Nahua traditions of the world, there had been four ages of the
world; at the end of each age, the world was destroyed.
Right above and below the ovals with the claws, we see four
squares containing hieroglyphics.
Each of these squares refers to one of the destructions of the
world. The upper right hand square contains the head of a tiger.
This represents the first destruction of the world, which was by
tigers. The four dots seen, in this square do not refer to a
date as they generally do; it is a sacred number, and constantly
reappears in all hieroglyphics referring to feasts of the sun.
To the left of this square, crowded between it and the pointer,
can be seen the hieroglyphic of the day Tecpatl. The little dot
is one, so this day one tecpatl probably refers to the day in
which the feast in reference to this destruction was celebrated.
The second age was terminated by a hurricane. The upper left
hand square containing the hieroglyphic for wind refers to this
destruction. Between this square and the pointer is crowded in
the hieroglyphic of one Calli, referring to the feast in memory
of this destruction. The third destruction of the world was by
rain, the lower left hand square containing the hieroglyphic of
rain. Below, not very distinctly, is the date of this feast, one
quiahuitl. The last destruction was by water, represented by the
lower right hand square. The date of this feast as represented
below is seven Ozomatl.<80>
Passing out of this central zone we notice the hieroglyphics for
the days of the month arranged in a circle. The A shaped ray
from the head of the sun indicates where we are to commence to
read; and we notice they must be read from right to left.
Resting on this circle of day, we notice four great pointers not
unlike a large capital A. They are supposed to refer to sunrise,
noon, sunset, and midnight. Next in order after the days we
notice a circle of little squares, each containing five dots.
Making allowance for the space covered by the legs of the
pointers just mentioned, there are found to be two hundred and
sixty of these days; they, therefore, refer to the days of the
moon reckoning. We notice four smaller pointers not quite so
elaborate as those already referred to, resting in this circle.
They probably refer to smaller divisions of the days. The next
circle contains a row of glyphs not unlike kernels of corn.
One hundred and five are represented on this circle; they refer
to the days of the sun reckoning.
Illustration of Sign of Rain.-----------------
Resting on this circle of days are small towers; they, like the
smaller pointers, refer to divisions of the day. Adjoining each
of these little towers is a figure; this cut represents one of
them. We notice they form a circle extending clear around the
stone. The meaning of this circle is gathered from other painted
records. It represents a rain storm; four drops are seen falling
to the ground. The ground is cultivated, as shown by the three
ridges; a grain of corn is represented lying on the ground.
This band on the stone is in honor of the rain-god.
Illustration of Sign of Cycle.---------------
There remains only to explain the outer row or band. At the
bottom is a rude representation of two heads with helmets.
The meaning of these figures is unknown. From each of these
figures extend in a semicircle a row of figures of this shape,
ending with pointers at the top, between which is a year-date.
Near the points on each side is what might be described as four
bundles tied together. Each of the small figures just described
is the representation of a cycle of fifty-two years.
The date on the top is the year date, Thirteen Acatl. This is an
easily determinable date. From Mexican paintings, we know the
conquest of Mexico occurred in the year Three Calli. From this
tracing their years back by the table given earlier (Arrangement
of Years in a Mexican Cycle), we would find that the first
Thirteen Acatl we meet was in the year 1479. This is exactly the
date when, according to tradition, the great temple was
finished, and this stone dedicated by bloody sacrifices. If we
count the number of signs for cycles, we find that there are
just twelve on each side, twenty-four in all. As the artist
could easily have made this number more or less, the
probabilities are that it means something. The most plausible
explanation is, that in the year 1479, they had traditions of
twenty-four cycles. But this number of cycles is equivalent to
twelve hundred and forty-eight years, which would carry us back
to about the year 231, A.D., which date we must bear in mind;
not that we think there is any scientific value to it, but for
its bearing on other matter at the close of the chapter.<81>
We come now to consider the subject of their picture writings.
The germ of writing is found in the rude attempts to assist the
memory to recall past events. Some of the northern Indian tribes
resorted for this purpose to belts of wampum. When a new sachem
was to be invested with office among the Iroquois, the
historical wampum belts were produced; an old man taking them in
hand, and walking back and forth, proceeded to "read" from them
the principles of the confederacy. In this case, particular
events were connected with particular strings of wampum.<82>
Pictorial representation would be the next stage. At first the
aim of the artist would be to make his drawings as perfect as
possible. A desire to save labor would soon lead them to use
only the lines necessary to show what was meant. This seems to
be about the stage of picture writing, reached by some Indian
tribes, who have left here and there specimens carved on rocks.
Illustration of Indian Picture Writing.------------
This cut is a specimen of such writing from the canyon of the
San Juan in Arizona. Although quite impossible to read it, there
is no doubt but what it expressed a meaning at the time it was
Illustration of Chapultepec.--------------
From this stage of development would naturally arise symbolical
paintings. Thus "footsteps" might signify the idea of going.
A comma-shaped figure, issuing from a person's mouth, would
stand for speech. The next step is what we might call
rebus-writing, where not the thing itself was meant but the
sound. Thus this cut represents Chapultepec--meaning
grasshopper-hill, or locust mount. It is evident, here, the
pictures of the objects represent the name. They, probably, did
not use this principle farther than to represent the proper
names of persons and things before the coming of the Spaniards.
Illustration of Amen.--------------------
Some think that, in addition to the above, the Mexicans used, to
a very limited extent, a true phonetic writing--one in which the
figures refer not to the thought, but to the sound of the
thought.<83> Others are not ready to concede that point.
They could not have been further along than the threshold of the
discovery, at all events. The Spanish missionaries were very
desirous of teaching the Indians the Pater-noster, the
Ave-Maria, and the Credo. Either the Indians themselves, or the
priests (probably the latter), hit on the device of using
painted symbols for the words and syllables of the church
prayers and formulas. Thus in this manner was painted the word
Amen. The first sign is the conventional figure for water, in
Mexican "atl, which stood for A. For the second syllable they
put the picture of a maguey plant, in Mexican "metl." The whole,
then, was "atl-metl," which was as near as they could express
the word amen. We must observe, that this was after the
Illustration of Historical Sheet.-----------------
The plate opposite is one of the paintings of the Mendoza
collection. This collection, we must remember, was made after
the conquest, simply to gratify the curiosity of the King of
Spain. The matter treated of is the events connected with time
when Motecuma the fifth "chief-of-men" held office. Around the
edge we see the hieroglyphics of the years. We notice he was
chief-of-men from the year one calli to two tecpatl. About the
only thing recorded of him is the different pueblos he
conquered. In all he subdued thirty-three; but only eleven are
shown in this plate. The pueblos are indicated by a house
toppling over--flames issuing from under the roof. The other
little hieroglyphics are the names of the pueblos. The last one
in the second transverse line from the bottom is the
hieroglyphic of Chalco, which we thus learn was reduced to
tribute under this chief. All the events indicated in this cut
took place before the discovery of America.<85>
Illustration of Chilapi--Tribute.---------------
A second part of this codex has reference to the tribute
received from various tribes. In this cut the left-hand figure
is the hieroglyphic of the town of Chilapi, and is an excellent
representation of their rebus-writing we have just referred to.
It is a tub of water, on which floats a red-pepper pod.
The Mexican word for this last is chilli, for water it is
"atl.". The word "pa" means above. For the full word we have
"chilli-atl-pa." Contracted, it becomes chilapi. The figure to
the right is the tribute. The five flags denotes one hundred.
Below is represented a copper ax-blade--from which we infer that
the Pueblo of Chilapi had to furnish a tribute of one hundred
Illustration of Child Training.--------------
A third part of this same collection refers to the Mexican
customs. In this cut we have represented the training of a boy
at the different ages of four, six, thirteen and fourteen years
of age. The little round marks number the years of his age.
The little elliptical-shaped figures show the number of
tortullas the child is allowed at a meal. The boy is trained to
carry and make various things, to row a boat, and to fish.
Illustration of Migration Chart.-----------
The most interesting of Mexican picture-writings is the record
of their wanderings. This was formerly supposed to represent
their migrations from Asia--but is now known to refer only to
their wanderings in the Valley of Mexico. De Lafield, in his
"Antiquities of America," gives a full representation of this
picture-writing. Bancroft's "Native Races," Vol. II, pp. 548-49,
give a very good reduced copy. We will not attempt to reproduce
it all. This cut represents the beginning of it. A man is seen
crossing a stream in a boat. The figure behind him may mean an
island, on which are represented some pueblos and human figures.
On the opposite bank of the stream, to which the footsteps
lead, is the hieroglyphic of Culhuacan, "the curved mountain."
The year date of this movement is "one tecpatl." The character
within that of Culhuacan is Huitzilopochtli, their national god.
The flakes issuing from his mouth signify that he is guiding
them. The principal figures about this map are the hieroglyphic
names of various places where they stopped, and the time spent
at each place.
The Mayas seem to have been further advanced in the art of
writing than their Nahua neighbors. Specimens of their
hieroglyphic writings have been given in the preceding chapter.
The hopes of our scholars were greatly raised when, in 1863, the
announcement was made that there had been discovered, in Madrid,
a Maya alphabet, which, it was expected, would unlock the
mysterious tablets just mentioned.
The alphabet thus discovered is represented in the next cut.
It will be seen that some of the letters have a number of
different forms. This discovery was hailed as of the greatest
importance, and a number of scholars at once set about to
decipher the tablets. They were speedily undeceived.
The alphabet is, practically, of no help whatever.
Prof. Valentine even goes so far as to declare that this
alphabet was not of native origin.
Illustration of Landa Alphabet.------------------
Illustration of Maya T.---------------
He thinks that Bishop Landa, who is the authority for this
alphabet, and who was Bishop of Yucatan from 1549 to 1579, being
anxious to assist the natives in learning the new faith, set
about the manufacture of an alphabet for them. This he did by
having the natives paint some native object which came the
nearest to the sound of our alphabet. Thus, for instance, this
symbol there are excellent reasons for supposing represents the
sun, or the word "day." The Maya word for this is te.
We find that this is the symbol that Landa employs for the
letter T, only, in his drawing, the central dot has fallen into
the lower dashes. Nearly all the other letters can be traced to
a similar source.<86> But the professor's reasoning does not
satisfy all. He is believed to be right in a number of his
identifications; but still the characters might have been used
in a phonetic way.<87>
Illustration of Maya Manuscript.-------------
There is no doubt but that the Mayas had a different system than
that in use among the Nahua people. The knowledge how to use it
was, probably, confined to the priests; and, furthermore, the
system was, doubtless, a mixed one. A few phonetic characters
might have been used; but they also used picture-writing. The
plate above is a sample of the manuscripts they left behind.
It is in the nature of a religious almanac, and refers to the
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