Chapter VI

Mexican Temple of Montezuma—The Serpent Emblem in Mexico—Pyramid of Cholula—Tradition of the Giants of Anahuac—The Temple of Quetzalcoatl—North American Indians and the Rattlesnake—Indian Tradition of a Great Serpent—Serpents in the Mounds of the West—Bigotry and Folly of the Spanish Conquerors of the West—Wide prevalence of Mexican Ophiolatreia.

The monuments of Mexico representing the serpent are very numerous, and have been specially remarked by nearly every traveller in that interesting country. The symbol is equally conspicuous in the ancient paintings.

“The great temple of Mexico,” says Acosta, “was built of great stones in fashion of snakes tied one to another, and the circuit was called coate-pantli which is circuit of snakes.” Duran informs us that this temple was expressly built by the first Montezuma “for all the gods,” and hence called Coatlan, literally “serpent place.” It contained, he also informed us, the temple or shrine of Tezcatlipoca, Huitzlipochtli, and Tlaloc, called Coateocalli, “Temple of the Serpent.”

Says Bernal Diaz, in his account of the march of Cortes to Mexico, “We to-day arrived at a place called Terraguco, which we called the town of the serpents, on account of the enormous figures of those reptiles which we found in their temples, and which they worshipped as gods.”

It cannot be supposed that absolute serpent worship—a simple degraded adoration of the reptile itself, or Fetishism, such as is said to exist in some parts of Africa—prevailed in Mexico. The serpent entered into their religious systems only as an emblem. It is nevertheless not impossible, on the contrary it is extremely probable, that a degree of superstitious veneration attached to the reptile itself. According to Bernal Diaz, living rattlesnakes were kept in the great temple of Mexico as sacred objects. He says, “Moreover, in that accursed house they kept vipers and venomous snakes, who had something at their tails which sounded like morris-bells, and these are the worst of vipers. They were kept in cradles and barrels, and in earthen vessels, upon feathers, and there they laid their eggs, and nursed up their snakelings, and they were fed with the bodies of the sacrificed, and with dogs’ meat.” {61}

Charlevaix in the History of Paraguay, relates “that Alvarez, in one of his expeditions into that country, found a town in which was a large tower or temple the residence of a monstrous serpent which the inhabitants had chosen for a divinity and which they fed with human flesh. He was as thick as an ox, and seven and twenty feet long.” This account has been regarded as somewhat apocryphal, although it is likely enough that Serpent Worship may have existed among some of the savage tribes of South America.

It has been said “it should be remarked that Diaz was little disposed to look with complacency upon the religion of the Mexicans, or whatever was connected with it, and that his prejudices were not without their influence on his language. His relation, nevertheless, may be regarded as essentially reliable.”

Mr. Mayer, in his Description of Mexico, gives an interesting account of the ancient and extraordinary Indian Pyramid of Cholula, an erection intimately connected with the Quetzalcoatl we have been speaking of.

This is one of the most remarkable relics of the aborigines on the continent, for, although it was constructed only of the adobes or common sun-dried brick, it still remains in sufficient distinctness to strike every observer with wonder at the enterprise of its Indian builders. What it was intended for, whether tomb or temple, no one has determined with certainty, though the wisest antiquarians have been guessing since the conquest. In the midst of a plain the Indians erected a mountain. The base still remains to give us its dimensions; but what was its original height? Was it the tomb of some mighty lord, or sovereign prince; or was it alone a place of sacrifice?

Many years ago in cutting a new road toward Puebla from Mexico it became necessary to cross a portion of the base of this pyramid. The excavation laid bare a square chamber, built of stone, the roof of which was sustained by cypress beams. In it were found some idols of basalt, a number of painted vases, and the remains of two dead bodies. No care was taken of these relics by the discoverers, and they are lost to us for ever.

Approaching the pyramid from the east, it appears so broken and overgrown with trees that it is difficult to make out any outline distinctly. From the west, however, a very fair idea may be obtained of this massive monument as it rises in solitary grandeur from the midst of the wide-spreading plain. A well-paved road cut by the old Spaniards, ascends from the north-west corner {62} with steps at regular intervals, obliquing first on the west side to the upper bench of the terrace, and thence returning toward the same side until it is met by a steep flight rising to the front of the small dome-crowned chapel, surrounded with its grave of cypress and dedicated to the Virgin of Remedies.

The summit is perfectly level, and protected by a parapet wall, whence a magnificent view extends on every side over the level valley. Whatever this edifice may have been, the idea of thus attaining permanently an elevation to which the people might resort for prayer—or even for parade or amusement—was a sublime conception and entitles the men who, centuries ago, patiently erected the lofty pyramid, to the respect of posterity.

There remain at present but four stories of the Pyramid of Cholula, rising above each other and connected by terraces. These stories are formed, as already said, of sun-dried bricks, interspersed with occasional layers of plaster and stone work. “And this is all,” says Mr. Mayer, “that is to be told or described. Old as it is—interesting as it is—examined as it has been by antiquaries of all countries—the result has ever been the same. The Indians tell you that it was a place of sepulture, and the Mexicans give you the universal reply of ignorance in this country: Quien Sabe?—who knows? who can tell?”

Baron Humboldt says:—“The Pyramid of Cholula is exactly the same height as that of Tonatiuh Ylxaqual, at Teotihuacan. It is three metres higher than that of Mycerinus, or the third of the great Egyptian pyramids of the group of Djizeh. Its base, however, is larger than that of any pyramid hitherto discovered by travellers in the old world, and is double of that known as the Pyramid of Cheops. Those who wish to form an idea of the immense mass of this Mexican monument by the comparison of objects best known to them, may imagine a square four times greater than that of the Place Vendôme in Paris, covered with layers of bricks rising to twice the elevation of the Louvre. Some persons imagine that the whole of the edifice is not artificial, but as far as explorations have been made there is no reason to doubt that it is entirely a work of art. In its present state (and we are ignorant of its perfect original height) its perpendicular proportion is to its base as eight to one, while in the three great pyramids of Djizeh the proportion is found to be one and six-tenths to one and seven-tenths to one; or nearly as eight to five.”

May not this have been the base of some mighty temple destroyed long before the conquest, and of which even the tradition no longer lingers among the neighbouring Indians? {63}

In continuation Humboldt observes that “that the inhabitants of Anahauc apparently designed giving the Pyramid of Cholula the same height, and double the base of the Pyramid of Teotihuacan, and that the Pyramid of Asychis, the largest known of the Egyptians, has a base of 800 feet, and is like that of Cholula built of brick. The cathedral of Strasburgh is eight feet, and the cross of St Peter’s at Rome forty-one feet lower than the top of the Pyramid of Cheops. Pyramids exist throughout Mexico; in the forests of Papantla at a short distance above the level of the sea; on the plains of Cholula and of Teotihuacan, at the elevations which exceed those of the passes of the Alps. In the most widely distant nations, in climates the most different, man seems to have adopted the same style of construction, the same ornaments, the same customs, and to have placed himself under the government of the same political institutions.”

Is this an argument? it has been asked; that all men have sprung from one stock, or that the human mind is the same everywhere, and, affected by similar interests or necessities, invariably comes to the same result, whether pointing a pyramid or an arrow, in making a law or a ladle?

“Much as I distrust,” says Mayer, “all the dark and groping efforts of antiquarians, I will nevertheless offer you some sketches and legends which may serve at least to base a conjecture upon as to the divinity to whom this pyramid was erected, and to prove, perhaps, that it was intended as the foundation of a temple and not the covering of a tomb.”

A tradition, which has been recorded by a Dominican monk who visited Cholula in 1566, is thus related from his work, by the traveller already quoted.

“Before the great inundation which took place 4,800 years after the erection of the world, the country of Anahuac was inhabited by giants, all of whom either perished in the inundation or were transformed into fishes, save seven who fled into caverns.

“When the waters subsided, one of the giants, called Xelhua, surnamed the ‘Architect,’ went to Cholula, where as a memorial of the Tlaloc which had served for an asylum to himself and his six brethern, he built an artificial hill in the form of a pyramid. He ordered bricks to be made in the province of Tlalmanalco, at the foot of the Sierra of Cecotl, and in order to convey them to Cholula he placed a file of men who passed them from hand to hand. The gods beheld, with wrath, an edifice the top of which was to reach the clouds. Irritated at the daring attempt of {64} Xelhua, they hurled fire on the pyramid. Numbers of the workmen perished. The work was discontinued, and the monument was afterwards dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.” Of this god we have already given a description in these pages.

The following singular story in relation to this divinity and certain services of his temple, is to be found in the “Natural and Moral History of Acosta,” book 5, chap. 30.

“There was at this temple of Quetzalcoatl, at Cholula, a court of reasonable greatness, in which they made great dances and pastimes with games and comedies, on the festival day of this idol, for which purpose there was in the midst of this court a theatre of thirty feet square, very finely decked and trimmed—the which they decked with flowers that day—with all the art and invention that might be, being environed around with arches of divers flowers and feathers, and in some places there were tied many small birds, conies, and other tame beasts. After dinner, all the people assembled in this place, and the players presented themselves and played comedies. Some counterfeited the deaf and rheumatic, others the lame, some the blind and crippled which came to seek for cure from the idol. The deaf answered confusedly, the rheumatic coughed, the lame halted, telling their miseries and griefs, wherewith they made the people to laugh. Others came forth in the form of little beasts, some attired like snails, others like toads, and some like lizards; then meeting together they told their offices, and, everyone retiring to his place, they sounded on small flutes which was pleasant to hear. They likewise counterfeited butterflies and small birds of divers colours which were represented by the children who were sent to the temple for education. Then they went into a little forest, planted there for the purpose, whence the priests of the temple drew them forth with instruments of music. In the meantime they used many pleasant speeches, some in propounding, others in defending, wherewith the assistants were pleasantly entertained. This done, they made a masque or mummery with all the personages, and so the feast ended.”

From these traditions we derive several important facts. First, that Quetzalcoatl was “god of the air;” second, that he was represented as a “feathered serpent;” third, that he was the great divinity of the Cholulans; and fourth, that a hill was raised by them upon which they erected a temple to his glory where they celebrated his festivals with pomp and splendour.

Combining all these, is it unreasonable to believe that the {65} Pyramid of Cholula was the base of this temple, and that he was there worshipped as the Great Spirit of the Air—or of the seasons; the God who produced the fruitfulness of the earth, regulated the Sun, the wind, and the shower, and thus spread plenty over the land. It has been thought too, that the serpent might not improbably typify lightning, and the feathers swiftness, thus denoting one of the attributes of the air and that the most speedy and destructive.

Mr. Mayer says:—“I constantly saw serpents, in the city of Mexico, carved in stone, and in the various collections of antiquities,” and he gives drawings of several of the principal, notably one carved with exquisite skill and found in the court-yard of the University.

Vasquez Coronado, Governor of New Gallicia, as the northern territories of Spain were then called, wrote to the Viceroy Mendoza in 1539, concerning the unknown regions still beyond him to the northward. His account was chiefly based upon the fabulous relation of the Friar Marco Niza, and is not entirely to be relied upon. In this letter he mentions that “in the province of Topira there were people who had great towers and temples covered with straw, with small round windows, filled with human skulls, and before the temple a great round ditch, the brim of which was compassed with a serpent, made of various metals, which held its tail in its mouth, and before which men were sacrificed.”

Du Paix has given many examples of the carving representing the snake, which he found in his Antiquarian Explorations in Mexico. One found near the ancient city of Chochimilco represents a snake artificially coiled carved from a block of porphry. “Its long body is gracefully entwined, leaving its head and tail free. There is something showy in the execution of the figure. Its head is elevated and curiously ornamented, its open mouth exhibits two long and pointed fangs, its tongue (which is unusually long) is cloven at the extremity like an anchor, its body is fancifully scaled, and its tail (covered with circles) ends with three rattles. The snake was a frequent emblem with the Mexican artists. The flexibility of its figure rendering it susceptible of an infinite diversity of position, regular and irregular; they availed themselves of this advantage and varied their representations of it without limit and without ever giving it an unnatural attitude.”

Near Quauhquechúla, Du Paix found another remarkable sculpture of the serpent carved in black basalt, and so entwined that {66} the space within the folds of its body formed a font sufficiently large to contain a considerable quantity of water. The body of the reptile was spirally entwined, and the head probably served as a handle to move it. It was decorated with circles, and the tail was that of a rattlesnake.

Du Paix also found at Tepeyaca, in a quarter of the town called St. Michael Tlaixegui (signifying in the Mexican language the cavity of the mountain) a serpent carved in red porphyry. It is of large dimensions, in an attitude of repose, and coiled upon itself in spiral circles so as to leave a hollow space or transverse axis in the middle. The head, which has a fierce expression, is armed with two long and sharp fangs, and the tongue is double being divided longitudinally. The entire surface of the body is ornamented or covered with broad and long feathers, and the tail terminates in four rattles. Its length from the head to the extremity of the tail is about twenty feet, and it gradually diminishes in thickness. “This reptile,” Du Paix says, “was the monarch or giant of its species, and in pagan times was a deity greatly esteemed under the name Quetzalcoatl, or Feathered Serpent. It is extremely well sculptured, and there are still marks of its having been once painted with vermillion.”

But the symbolical feathered serpent was not peculiar to Mexico and Yucatan. Squier, in his Explorations in Nicaragua, several times encountered it. Near the city of Santiago de Managua, the capital of the Republic, situated upon the shores of Lake Managua or Leon, and near the top of the high volcanic ridge which separates the waters flowing into the Atlantic from those running into the Pacific, is an extinct crater, now partially filled with water, forming a lake nearly two miles in circumference, called Nihapa. The sides of this crater are perpendicular rocks ranging from five hundred to eight hundred feet in height. There is but one point where descent is possible. It leads to a little space, formed by the fallen rocks and debris which permits a foothold for the traveller. Standing here, he sees above him, on the smooth face of the cliff, a variety of figures, executed by the aborigines, in red paint. Most conspicuous amongst them, is a feathered serpent coiled and ornamented. It is about four feet in diameter. Upon some of the other rocks were found paintings of the serpent, perfectly corresponding with the representations in the Dresden MS. copied by Kingsborough and confirming the conjectures of Humboldt and other investigators that this MS. had its origin to the southward of Mexico. The figure copied was supposed by the {67} natives who had visited it to represent the sun. Some years ago, large figures of the sun and moon were visible upon the cliffs, but the section upon which they were painted was thrown down by the great earthquake of 1838. Parts of the figures can yet be traced upon the fallen fragments.

It is a singular fact that many of the North American Indian tribes entertain a superstitious regard for serpents, and particularly for the rattlesnake. Though always avoiding, they never destroyed it, “lest,” says Bartram, “the spirit of the reptile should excite its kindred to revenge.”

According to Adair, this fear was not unmingled with veneration. Charlevoix states that the Natchez had the figure of a rattlesnake, carved from wood, placed among other objects upon the altar of their temple, to which they paid great honours. Heckwelder relates that the Linni Linape, called the rattlesnake “grandfather” and would on no account allow it to be destroyed. Henney states that the Indians around Lake Huron had a similar superstition, and also designated the rattlesnake as their “grandfather.” He also mentions instances in which offerings of tobacco were made to it, and its parental care solicited for the party performing the sacrifice. Carver also mentions an instance of similar regard on the part of a Menominee Indian, who carried a rattlesnake constantly with him, “treating it as a deity, and calling it his great father.”

A portion of the veneration with which the reptile was regarded in these cases may be referred to that superstition so common among the savage tribes, under the influence of which everything remarkable in nature was regarded as a medicine or mystery, and therefore entitled to respect. Still there appears to be, linked beneath all, the remnant of an Ophite superstition of a different character which is shown in the general use of the serpent as a symbol of incorporeal powers, of “Manitous” or spirits.

Mr. James, in his MSS. in the possession of the New York Historical Society, states, “that the Menominees translate the manitou of the Chippeways by ahwahtoke,” which means emphatically a snake. “Whether,” he continues, “the word was first formed as a name for a surprising or disgusting object, and thence transferred to spiritual beings, or whether the extension of its signification has been in an opposite direction, it is difficult to determine.” Bossu also affirms that the Arkansas believed in the existence of a great spirit, which they adore under form of a serpent. In the North-west it was a symbol of evil power. {68}

Here we may suitably introduce the tradition of a great serpent, which is to this day, current amongst a large portion of the Indians of the Algonquin stock. It affords some curious parallelisms with the allegorical relations of the old world. The Great Teacher of the Algonquins, Manabozho, is always placed in antagonism to a great serpent, a spirit of evil, who corresponds very nearly with the Egyptian Typhon, the Indian Kaliya, and the Scandinavian Midgard. He is also connected with the Algonquin notions of a deluge; and as Typhon is placed in opposition to Osiris or Apollo, Kaliya to Surya or the Sun, and Midgard to Wodin or Odin, so does he bear a corresponding relation to Manabozho. The conflicts between the two are frequent; and although the struggles are sometimes long and doubtful, Manabozho is usually successful against his adversary. One of these contests involved the destruction of the earth by water, and its reproduction by the powerful and beneficent Manabozho. The tradition in which this grand event is embodied was thus related by Kah-ge-ga-gah-boowh, a chief of the Ojibway. In all of its essentials, it is recorded by means of the rude pictured signs of the Indians, and scattered all over the Algonquin territories.

One day returning to his lodge, from a long journey, Manabozho missed from it his young cousin, who resided with him, he called his name aloud, but received no answer. He looked around on the sand for the tracks of his feet, and he there, for the first time, discovered the trail of Meshekenabek, the serpent. He then knew that his cousin had been seized by his great enemy. He armed himself, and followed on his track, he passed the great river, and crossed mountains and valleys to the shores of the deep and gloomy lake now called Manitou Lake, Spirit Lake, or the Lake of Devils. The trail of Meshekenabek led to the edge of the water.

At the bottom of this lake was the dwelling of the serpent, and it was filled with evil spirits—his attendants and companions. Their forms were monstrous and terrible, but most, like their master, bore the semblance of serpents. In the centre of this horrible assemblage was Meshekenabek himself, coiling his volumes around the hapless cousin of Manabozho. His head was red as with blood, and his eyes were fierce and glowed like fire. His body was all over armed with hard and glistening scales of every shade and colour.

Manabozho looked down upon the writhing spirits of evil, and he vowed deep revenge. He directed the clouds to disappear {69} from the heavens, the winds to be still, and the air to become stagnant over the lake of the manitous, and bade the sun shine upon it with all its fierceness; for thus he sought to drive his enemy forth to seek the cool shadows of the trees, that grew upon its banks, so that he might be able to take vengeance upon him.

Meanwhile, Manabozho, seized his bow and arrows and placed himself near the spot where he deemed the serpents would come to enjoy the shade. He then transferred himself into the broken stump of a withered tree, so that his enemies might not discover his presence.

The winds became still, and the sun shone hot on the lake of the evil manitous. By and by the waters became troubled, and bubbles rose to the surface, for the rays of the sun penetrated to the horrible brood within its depths. The commotion increased, and a serpent lifted its head high above the centre of the lake and gazed around the shores. Directly another came to the surface, and they listened for the footsteps of Manabozho but they heard him nowhere on the face of the earth, and they said one to the other, “Manabozho sleeps.” And then they plunged again beneath the waters, which seemed to hiss as they closed over them.

It was not long before the lake of manitous became more troubled than before, it boiled from its very depths, and the hot waves dashed wildly against the rocks on its shores. The commotion increased, and soon Meshekenabek, the Great Serpent, emerged slowly to the surface, and moved towards the shore. His blood-red crest glowed with a deeper hue, and the reflection from his glancing scales was like the blinding glitter of a sleet covered forest beneath the morning sun of winter. He was followed by the evil spirits, so great a number that they covered the shores of the lake with their foul trailing carcases.

They saw the broken, blasted stump into which Manabozho had transformed himself, and suspecting it might be one of his disguises, for they knew his cunning, one of them approached, and wound his tail around it, and sought to drag it down. But Manabozho stood firm, though he could hardly refrain from crying aloud, for the tail of the monster tickled his sides.

The Great Serpent wound his vast folds among the trees of the forest, and the rest also sought the shade, while one was left to listen for the steps of Manabozho.

When they all slept, Manabozho silently drew an arrow from his quiver, he placed it in his bow, and aimed it where he saw the{70} heart beat against the sides of the Great Serpent. He launched it, and with a howl that shook the mountains and startled the wild beasts in their caves, the monstre awoke, and, followed by its frightful companions, uttering mingled sounds of rage and terror, plunged again into the lake. Here they vented their fury on the helpless cousin of Manabozho, whose body they tore into a thousand fragments, his mangled lungs rose to the surface, and covered it with whiteness. And this is the origin of the foam on the water.

When the Great Serpent knew that he was mortally wounded, both he and the evil spirits around him were rendered tenfold more terrible by their great wrath and they rose to overwhelm Manabozho. The water of the lake swelled upwards from its dark depths, and with a sound like many thunders, it rolled madly on its track, bearing the rocks and trees before it with resistless fury. High on the crest of the foremost wave, black as the midnight, rode the writhing form of the wounded Meshekenabek, and red eyes glazed around him, and the hot breaths of the monstrous brood hissed fiercely above the retreating Manabozho. Then thought Manabozho of his Indian children, and he ran by their villages, and in a voice of alarm bade them flee to the mountains, for the Great Serpent was deluging the earth in his expiring wrath, sparing no living thing. The Indians caught up their children, and wildly sought safety where he bade them. But Manabozho continued his flight along the base of the western hills, and finally took refuge on a high mountain beyond Lake Superior, far towards the north. There he found many men and animals who had fled from the flood that already covered the valleys and plains, and even the highest hills. Still the waters continued to rise, and soon all the mountains were overwhelmed save that on which stood Manabozho. Then he gathered together timber, and made a raft, upon which the men and women, and the animals that were with him, all placed themselves. No sooner had they done so, than the rising floods closed over the mountain and they floated alone on the surface of the waters; and thus they floated for many days, and some died, and the rest became sorrowful, and reproached Manabozho that he did not disperse the waters and renew the earth that they might live. But though he knew that his great enemy was by this time dead, yet could not Manabozho renew the world unless he had some earth in his hands wherewith to begin the work. And this he explained to those that were with him, and he said that were it ever so little, {71} even a few grains of earth, then could he disperse the waters and renew the world. Then the beaver volunteered to go to the bottom of the deep, and get some earth, and they all applauded her design. She plunged in, they waited long, and when she returned she was dead; they opened her hands but there was no earth in them. “Then,” said the otter, “will I seek the earth:” and the bold swimmer dived from the raft. The otter was gone still longer than the beaver, but when he returned to the surface he too was dead, and there was no earth in his claws. “Who shall find the earth?” exclaimed all those left on the raft, “now that the beaver and the otter are dead?” and they desponded more than before, repeating, “Who shall find the earth?” “That will I,” said the muskrat, and he quickly disappeared between the logs of the raft. The muskrat was gone very long, much longer than the otter, and it was thought he would never return, when he suddenly rose near by, but he was too weak to speak, and he swam slowly towards the raft. He had hardly got upon it when he too died from his great exertion. They opened his little hands and there, clasped closely between the fingers, they found a few grains of fresh earth. These Manabozho carefully collected and dried them in the sun, and then he rubbed them into a fine powder in his palms, and, rising up, he blew them abroad upon the waters. No sooner was this done than the flood began to subside, and soon the trees on the mountains and hills emerged from the deep, and the plains and the valleys came in view and the waters disappeared from the land leaving no trace but a thick sediment, which was the dust that Manabozho had blown abroad from the raft.

Then it was found that Meshekenabek, the Great Serpent, was dead, and that the evil manitous, his companions, had returned to the depths of the lake of spirits, from which, for the fear of Manabozho, they never more dared to come forth. And in gratitude to the beaver, the otter, and the muskrat, those animals were ever after held sacred by the Indians, and they became their brethren, and they never killed nor molested them until the medicine of the stranger made them forget their relations and turned their hearts to ingratitude.

In the mounds of the West have been found various sculptures of the serpent, and amongst them one as follows:—It represents a coiled rattlesnake, and is carved in a very compact cinnamon-coloured sandstone. It is six and a quarter inches long, one and three-eighths broad, and a quarter of an inch thick. The {72} workmanship is delicate, and the characteristic features of the rattlesnake are perfectly represented, the head, unfortunately, is not entire, but enough remains to show that it was surmounted by some kind of feather-work resembling that so conspicuously represented in the sculptured monuments of the South. It was found carefully enveloped in sheet copper, and under circumstances which render it certain that it was an object of high regard and probably of worship.

Notwithstanding the striking resemblances which have been pointed out, in the elementary religions of the old and new worlds, and the not less remarkable coincidences in their symbolical systems, we are scarcely prepared to find in America that specific combination which fills so conspicuous a place in the early cosmogonies and mythologies of the East, and which constitute the basis of these investigations, namely, the compound symbol of the Serpent and the Egg. It must be admitted that, in the few meagre and imperfect accounts which we have of the notions of cosmogony entertained by the American nations, we have no distinct allusion to it. The symbolism is far too refined and abstract to be adopted by wandering, savage tribes, and we can only look for it, if at all, among the more civilized nations of the central part of the continent, where religion and mythology ranked as an intelligible system. And here we have at once to regret and reprobate the worse than barbarous zeal of the Spanish conquerors, who, not content with destroying the pictured records and overturning and defacing the primitive monuments of those remarkable nations; distorted the few traditions which they recorded, so as to lend a seeming support to the fictions of their own religion, and invested the sacred rites of the aborigines with horrible and repulsive features, so as to furnish, among people like minded with themselves, some apology for their savage cruelty. Not only were orders given by the first Bishop of Mexico, the infamous Zumanaga, for the burning of all the Mexican MSS. which could be procured, but all persons were discouraged from recording the traditions of the ancient inhabitants.

So far, therefore, from having a complete and consistent account of the beliefs and conceptions of those nations, to which reference may be had in inquiries of this kind, we have only detached and scattered fragments, rescued by later hands from the general destruction. Under such circumstances we cannot expect to find parallel evidences of the existence of specific conceptions; that is to say, we may find certain representations {73} clearly symbolical and referring to the cosmogony, mythology, or religion of the primitive inhabitants and yet look in vain among the scanty and distorted traditions and few mutilated pictured records which are left us for collateral support of the significance which reason and analogy may assign to them.

It is not assumed to say that any distinct representation of the Serpent and the Egg exists amongst the monuments of Mexico or Central America; what future investigations may disclose remains to be seen. If, until the present time, we have remained in profound ignorance of the existence of the grand monument under notice, in one of the best populated states, what treasures of antiquity may yet be hidden in the fastnesses of the central part of the continent!

It has often been said that every feature in the religion of the New World, discovered by Cortez and Pizarro, indicates an origin common to the superstitions of Egypt and Asia. The same solar worship, the same pyramidal monuments, and the same Ophiolatreia distinguish them all.

Acosta says “the temple of Vitziliputzli was built of great stones in fashion of snakes tied one to another, and the circuit was called ‘the circuit of snakes’ because the walls of the enclosure were covered with the figures of snakes. Vitziliputzli held in his right hand a staff cut in the form of a serpent, and the four corners of the ark in which he was seated terminated each with a carved representation of the head of a serpent. From the sides of the god projected the heads of two serpents and his right hand leaned upon a staff like a serpent. The Mexican century was represented by a circle, having the sun in the centre, surrounded by the symbols of the years. The circumference was a serpent twisted into four knots at the cardinal points.”1)

The Mexican month was divided into twenty days; the serpent and dragon symbolized two of them. In Mexico there was also a temple dedicated to the God of the Air, and the door of it was formed so as to resemble a serpent’s mouth.2)

Amongst other things, Peter Martyr mentions a large serpent-idol at Campeachy, made of stones and bitumen, in the act of devouring a marble lion. When first seen by the Spaniards it was warm with the blood of human victims.

“Ancient painting and sculptures abound with evidences of {74} Mexican Ophiolatreia, and prove that there was scarcely a Mexican deity who was not symbolized by a serpent or a dragon. Many deities appear holding serpents in their hands, and small figures of priests are represented with a snake over each head. This reminds us forcibly of the priests of the Egyptian Isis, who are described in sculpture with the sacred asp upon the head and a cone in the left hand. And to confirm the original mutual connexion of all the serpent-worshippers throughout all the world—the Mexican paintings, as well as the Egyptian and Persian hieroglyphics, describe the Ophite Hierogram of the intertwined serpents in almost all its varieties. A very remarkable one occurs in M. Allard’s collection of sculptures; in which the dragons forming it have each a man’s head in his mouth. The gods of Mexico are frequently pictured fighting with serpents and dragons; and gods, and sometimes men, are represented in conversation with the same loathsome creatures. There is scarcely, indeed, a feature in the mystery of Ophiolatreia which may not be recognised in the Mexican superstitions.

“We perceive, therefore, that in the kingdom of Mexico the serpent was sacred, and emblematic of more gods than one: an observation which may be extended to almost every other nation which adored the symbolical serpent. This is a remarkable and valuable fact, and it discovers in Ophiolatreia another feature of its aboriginal character. For it proves the serpent to have been a symbol of intrinsic divinity, and not a mere representative of peculiar properties which belong to some gods and not to others.”3)

From what has been presented, it will be seen that the serpent symbol was of general acceptance in America, particularly among the semi-civilized nations; that it entered widely into their symbolic representations, and this significance was essentially the same with that which attached to it among the early nations of the old continent. Upon the basis, therefore, of the identity which we have observed in the elementary religious conceptions of the Old and New World, and the striking uniformity in their symbolical systems, we feel justified in ascribing to the emblematic Serpent and Egg of Ohio a significance radically the same with that which was assigned to the analogous compound symbol among the primitive nations of the East. This conclusion is further sustained by the character of some of the religious {75} structures of the old continent, in which we find the symbolic serpent and the egg or circle represented on a most gigantic scale. Analogy could probably furnish no more decisive sanction, unless by exhibiting other structures, in which not only a general correspondence, but an absolute identity should exist. Such an identity it would be unreasonable to look for, even in the works of the same people, constructed in accordance with a common design.

It may seem hardly consistent with the caution which should characterize researches of this kind, to hazard the suggestion that the symbolical Serpent and Egg of Ohio are distinctly allusive to the specific notions of cosmogony which prevailed among the nations of the East, for the reason that it is impossible to bring positive collateral proof that such notions were entertained by any of the American nations. The absence of written records and of impartially preserved traditions we have already had ample reason to deplore; and unless further explorations shall present us with unexpected results, the deficiency may always exist. But we must remember that in no respect are men more tenacious than in the preservation of their rudimental religious beliefs and early conceptions. In the words of a philosophical investigator—“Of all researches that most effectually aid us to discover the origin of a nation or people whose history is involved in the obscurity of ancient times, none perhaps are attended with such important results as the analysis of their theological dogmas and their religious practices. To such matters mankind adhere with the greatest tenacity, which, though modified and corrupted in the revolution of ages, still retain features of their original construction, when language, arts, sciences and political establishments no longer preserve distinct lineaments of their ancient constitutions.”4)

A striking example of the truth of these remarks is furnished in the religion of India, which, to this day, notwithstanding the revolution of time and empire, the destructions of foreign and of civil wars, and the constant addition of allegorical fictions (more fatal to the primitive system than all the other causes combined), still retains its original features, which are easily recognisable, and which identify it with the religions which prevailed in monumental Egypt, on the plains of Assyria, in the valleys of Greece, among the sterner nations around the Caspian, {76} and among their kindred tribes on the rugged shores of Scandinavia.

This tenacity is not less strikingly illustrated in the careful perpetuation of rites, festivals and scenic representations which originated in notions which have long since become obsolete, and are now forgotten. Very few of the attendants on the annual May-day festival, as celebrated a few years back in this country, and very few of those who have read about the same are aware that it was only a perpetuation of the vernal solar festival of Baal, and that the garlanded pole was anciently a Phallic emblem.

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Clavigero, vol. 1.
McCulloch’s American Researches, p. 225.