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extensive study of the remains of the ancient Americans has served to dissipate many of the theories formerly entertained in regard to their origin, and models; and it is now very generally acknowledged that we possess no clue to the history of those first steps by which the vast continent of America was reclaimed from the solitude of an unpeopled wilderness. Such a state of belief is the most favourable for
unprejudiced study; and now, that American archæologists are fully alive to the interest which attaches to the history of the continents they have inherited from older races of the human family, much new and valuable light may be looked for, in reference to those obscure and lost chapters of the world's history relating to its first peopling, and the rise of its native arts and wild mythology.
The discovery of hieroglyphic inscriptions on the monuments of the Aztecs, was one of the most tempting analogies to the earliest relics of the Old World which the curious explorers of ancient history found in the New World. At first sight there seemed ground whereon to rear a basis of truth for mastering the whole mystery, and even for obtaining the clue to the then unknown secret of the older hieroglyphs of Egypt. It was assumed, somewhat hastily, that hieroglyphic writing was every where one and the same. Supposing it to be a purely representative system of picture-writing, it seemed to require little more than a tolerably clear understanding of the intended representations of objects in order to master the whole. The Aztecs had indeed just such a hieroglyphic system in use; and their picture-writing still survives on many of the monuments of Mexico and Yucatan. There is good reason to believe that it was no more than an abbreviated system of literal representation, such as the Egyptian system of hieroglyphic writing was universally believed to be prior to the discoveries of the present century, and such as it doubtless was in its origin, though its pictorial representations have gradually passed into symbolic or arbitrary signs. An illustration of the mode adopted by the Aztecs in making use of their picture-writing on extraordinary occasions, is shown in the account preserved by the early Spanish discoverers of America. We learn from their historians, that the Indian scouts despatched to bring back word of the strange invaders who threatened the kingdon. of Montezuma, informed their master of the arrival and appearance of Cortez and his followers, by sketches of the Spaniards, their ships, horses, firearms, &c. Such was no doubt the origin both of the American and Egyptian systems. They were at first no more than rude methods of conveying an idea of objects by miniature representations of them. The earliest refinement on this would consist chiefly in the most natural mode of abbreviation, by substituting a part for the whole. In this way the crown became the symbol of the king, and the inkhorn of the scribe; or again, a male and female figure together stood for mankind, an ox with three lines below it for oxen, or many oxen, &c. But the symbolic writing of America retained much more of its primitive pictorial character than that of Egypt; and there is certainly nothing in its details to justify any idea of its correspondence to the Nile monuments. " The most prominent feature,” says Humboldt, “among the analogies observed in the monuments, the manners, and traditions of the people of Asia and America, is that which the Mexican mythology exhibits in the cosmogonical fiction of the periodical destructions and regenerations of the world. This fiction, which connects the return of the great cycles with the idea of the renewal of matter,
deemed indestructible; and which attributes to space what seems to belong only to time, goes back to the highest antiquity. The sacred books of the Hindoos, especially the Bhagavata Pourana, speak of the four ages, and of the pralayas, or cataclysms, which at different epochs have destroyed the human race. A
tradition of five ages, analogous with that of the Mexicans, is found on the elevated plain of Thibet. If it be true, that this astrological fiction, which is become the basis of a particular system of cosmogony, originated in Hindostan, it is probable also, that it passed thence by the way of Iran and Chaldea to the western nations. It cannot but be admitted, that a certain resemblance exists between the Indian tradition of the Yougas and the Kalpas, the cycles of the ancient inhabitants of Etruria, and that series of generations destroyed, which Hesiod characterizes under the emblem of four metals.
“The nations of Culhua, or Mexico, says Gomara, who wrote about the middle of the sixteenth century, believe, according to their hieroglyphical paintings, that, previous to the sun which now enlightens them, four had already been successively extinguished. These four suns are as many ages, in which our species has been annihilated by inundations, by earthquakes, by a general conflagration, and by the effect of destroying tempests. After the destruction of the fourth sun, the world was plunged in darkness during the space of twenty-five years. Amid this profound obscurity, ten years before the appearance of the fifth sun, mankind was regenerated. The gods, at that period, for the fifth time, created a man and a woman. The day, on which the last sun appeared, bore the sign tochtli (rabbit); and the Mexicans reckon eight hundred and fifty years from this epoch to 1552. Their annals go back as far as the fifth sun. They made use of historical paintings (escritura pintada) even in the four preceding ages; but these paintings, as they assert, were destroyed, because in each age every thing ought to be renewed. According to Torquemada, this fable of the revolutions of time, and the regeneration of nature, is of Tolteck origin : it is a national tradition cominon to that group of people, whom we know under the name of Toltecks, Chichiinecks, Acolhuans, Nahuatlacks, Tlascaltecks,
and Aztecs; and who, speaking the same language, have been flowing from north to south since the middle of the sixth century of our era.”
Instead of looking in these curious traditions for affinities with the mythology of India or Egypt, we find ourselves on much safer, and more certain ground, when we discover in them only the confused and distorted traces of the true history of the world which we possess in the authentic records of the inspired narrative.
The definite pictorial character of many of the mythological representations of the Aztecs renders it easy to arrive at the meaning they were designed to convey. It was ideas, and not words, that they represented; and therefore they contain records engrossed in a language intelligible to all, differing therein entirely from the Egyptian inscriptions. For even now, that the meaning of their symbols is ascertained, the ideas they convey are found to be rendered in a lost language, and can as yet be, at best, only obscurely guessed, by means of the modern Coptic, a corrupted dialect of the language of ancient Egypt. An examination of the paintings representing the successive destructions of the elder worlds has furnished the interpretation both of hieroglyphic signs, and of ideas of natural science, according to the ancient belief of the Aztecs. “We find,” says Humboldt,“ in the four destructions, the emblems of four elements, earth, fire, air, and water. These same elements were also indicated by the four hieroglyphics of the years, rabbit, house, flint, and cane.
Calli, or house, considered as the symbol of fire, reminds us of the usages of a northern people, who, from the inclemency of the climate were obliged to warm their huts; and the idea of Vesta, which, in the most ancient system of the Greek mythology, represents at once the house, the hearth, and the domestic fire. The sign tecpatl, flint, was dedicated to the god of the air, Quetzalcohuatl, a mysterious personage, who belongs to the heroic
times of Mexican history, and of whom we have had occasion to speak several times in the course of this work. According to the Mexican calendar, tecpatl is the sign of the night, which, at the beginning of the cycle, accompanies the hieroglyphic of the day, called ehecatl, or wind. Perhaps the history of an aerolite, which fell from the sky on the summit of the pyramid of Cholula, dedicated to Quetzalcohuatl, led the Mexicans to establish this singular connection between a flint and the god of the winds."
The signs of the days of the week, and the whole system of chronological measurement, has been mastered with no great difficulty. But one very simple and remarkable symbol, on the monuments not only of the most civilized regions of the aboriginal American races, but, as it would seem, common to nearly all the different races peopling the vast continent, is peculiarly worthy of notice. In describing some of the most remarkable features of the ruins at Uxmal, Mr. Stephens remarks :-“Over a cavity in the mortar, were two conspicuous marks, which afterward stared us in the face in all the ruined buildings of the country. They were the prints of a red hand with the thumb and fingers extended, not drawn or painted, but stamped by the living hand, the pressure of the palm upon the stone. He who made it had stood before it alive as we did, and pressed his hand, moistened with red paint, hard against the stone. The seams and creases of the palm were clear and distinct in the impression. There was something lifelike about it that waked exciting thoughts, and almost presented the images of the departed inhabitants hovering about the building. And there was one striking feature about these hands; they were exceedingly small. Either of our own spread over and completely hid them; and this was interesting from the fact that we had ourselves remarked, and heard remarked by others, the smallness of the hands and feet as a striking