Chapter XI

Mr. Bullock’s Exhibition of Objects illustrating Serpent Worship.

Upwards of sixty years ago, there was opened at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, what was described as the “Unique Exhibition called Ancient Mexico; collected on the spot in 1823, by the assistance of the Mexican Government, by W. Bullock, F.L.S., &c., &c.” The illustration attached to a published description of this collection shows that it contained reproductions of some of the most remarkable of the serpent deities to be found in the temples of the western parts of America, and the following extract will prove interesting to our readers.

“The rattlesnake appears to have been the most general object of worship, veneration, and fear; indeed it occurs in some manner combined with almost every other, and is still found in many of the Indian villages. It remains at Tezcuco, quite perfect at the present time. Broken fragments may be met in the exterior of the houses in Mexico in several places; the great head placed at the left of the sacrificial stone is cast from one in the corner of the fine building used for the Government Lottery Office, and exposed to the street. It must have belonged to an idol at least seventy feet long, probably in the great temple, and broken and buried at the Conquest. They are generally in a coiled up state, with the tail or rattle on the back, but they vary in their size and position. The finest that is known to exist, I discovered in the deserted part of the Cloister of the Dominican Convent opposite the Palace of the Inquisition. It is coiled up in an irritated erect position, with the jaws extended, and in the act of gorging an elegantly dressed female, who appears in the mouth of the enormous reptile, crushed and lacerated, a disgusting detail withal too horrible for description.

“Turning to a letter from Cortes to Charles V., as given by Humboldt, we read, ‘From the square we proceeded to the great temple, but before we entered it we made a circuit through a number of large courts, the smallest of which appeared to me to contain more ground than the great square in Salamanca, with double enclosures built of lime and stone, and the courts paved with large white cut stone, very clean; or, where not paved, they were plastered and polished. When we approached the gate of the great temple, to which the ascent was by a hundred and fourteen {100} steps, and before we had mounted one of them, Montezuma sent down to us six priests and two of his noblemen to carry Cortes up, as they had done their sovereign, which he politely declined. When we had ascended to the summit of the temple, we observed on the platform as we passed the large stone whereon were placed the victims who were to be sacrificed. Here was a great figure which resembled a dragon, and much blood fresh spilt. Cortes then addressing himself to Montezuma requested that he would do him the favour to show us his gods. Montezuma, having first consulted his priests, led us into a tower where there was a kind of saloon. Here were two altars highly adorned, with richly wrought timbers on the roof, and over the altars gigantic figures resembling very fat men. The one on the right was Huitzilopochtli their war god, with a great face and terrible eyes, this figure was entirely covered with gold and jewels, and his body bound with golden serpents, in his right hand he held a bow, and in his left a bundle of arrows. The little idol which stood by him represented his page, and bore a lance and target richly ornamented with gold and jewels. The great idol had round his neck the figures of human heads and hearts made of pure gold and silver, ornamented with precious stones of a blue colour. Before the idol was a pan of incense, with three hearts of human victims which were then burning, mixed with copal. The whole of that apartment, both walls and floor, was stained with human blood in such quantity as to give a very offensive smell. On the left was the other great figure, with a countenance like a bear, and great shining eyes of the polished substance whereof their mirrors are made. The body of this idol was also covered with jewels. These two deities it was said were brothers; the name of the last was Tezcatepuca, and he was the god of the infernal regions. He presided, according to their notions, over the souls of men. His body was covered with figures representing little devils with tails of serpents, and the walls and pavement of this temple were so besmeared with blood that they gave off a worse odour than all the slaughter-houses of Castille. An offering lay before him of five human hearts. In the summit of the temple, and in a recess the timber of which was highly ornamented, we saw a figure half human and the other half resembling an alligator, inlaid with jewels, and partly covered with a mantle. This idol was said to contain the germ and origin of all created things, and was the god of harvests and fruits. The walls and altars were bestained like the rest, and so offensive that we thought we never could get out soon enough. {101}

“‘In this place they had a drum of most enormous size, the head of which was made of the skins of large serpents. This instrument when struck resounded with a noise that could be heard to the distance of two leagues, and so doleful that it deserved to be named the music of the infernal regions; and with their horrible sounding horns and trumpets, their great knives for sacrifice, their human victims, and their blood besprinkled altars, I devoted them and all their wickedness to God’s vengeance, and thought that the time would never arrive that I should escape from this scene of butchery, horrible smells, and more detestable sights.

“‘On the site of the church, called St. Jago el Taltelulco, was a temple, which, we have already observed, was surrounded with courts as large as the square of Salamanca. At a little distance from it stood a tower, a true hell or habitation for demons, with a mouth, resembling that of an enormous monster, wide open, and ready as it were to devour those who entered. At the door stood frightful idols; by it was a place for sacrifice, and within, boilers and pots full of water to dress the flesh of the victims which were eaten by the priests. The idols were like serpents and devils, and before them were tables and knives for sacrifice, the place being covered with the blood which was spilt on those occasions. The furniture was like that of a butcher’s stall, and I never gave this accursed building any name except that of hell. Having passed this, we saw great piles of wood, and a reservoir of water supplied by a pipe from the great aqueduct; and crossing a court we came to another temple, wherein were the tombs of the Mexican nobility, it was begrimed with soot and blood. Next to this was another, full of skeletons and piles of bones, each kept apart, but regularly arranged. In each temple were idols, and each had also its particular priests, who wore long vestments of black, their long hair was clotted together, and their ears lacerated in honour of their gods.’”

Mr. Bullock then proceeds to describe a cast of the great idol of the goddess of war, which he had brought to England with him.

“This monstrous idol, before which thousands of human victims were annually sacrificed on the altar, is, with its pedestal, about twelve feet high and four feet wide, it is sculptured out of one solid piece of grey basalt. Its form is partly human, and the rest composed of rattlesnakes and the tiger. The head, enormously wide, seems that of two rattlesnakes united, the fangs hanging out of the mouth, on which the still palpitating hearts of the unfortunate victims were rubbed as an act of the most acceptable {102} oblation. The body is that of a deformed human frame, and the place of arms supplied by the heads of rattlesnakes placed on square plinths and united by fringed ornaments. Round the waist is a girdle, which was originally covered with gold, and beneath this, reaching nearly to the ground and partly covering its deformed cloven feet, a drapery entirely composed of wreathed rattlesnakes which the nations call cohuatlicuye or garments of serpents, on each side of which is a winged termination of the feathers of the vulture. Between the feet, descending from the body, another wreathed serpent rested its head on the ground, and the whole composition of this deity is strictly appropriate to the infernal purpose for which it was used, and with which the personal ornaments too well accord. From the neck, spreading over its deformed breast, is a necklace composed of human hands, hearts, and skulls—fit emblems of the sanguinary rites daily performed in its honour.

“The death’s head and mutilated hands, four of which surround the bosom of the goddess, remind us of the terrible sacrifices of Teoquawhquat, celebrated in the fifteenth century period of thirteen days after the summer solstice, in honour of the god of war and his female companion, Teoyamiqui. The mutilated hands alternate with the figure of certain vases in which incense was burnt. These vases were called Topxicalli, bags in the form of calabashes. This idol was sculptured on every side, even beneath where was represented Mictlanteuchtli, the Lord of the place of the dead; it cannot be doubted, but that it was supported in the air by means of two columns, on which rested the arms. According to this whimsical arrangement, the head of the idol was probably elevated five or six metres above the pavement of the temple, so that the priests dragging their unfortunate victims to the altar made them pass under the figure of Mictlanteuchtli. The Viceroy of Mexico transported this monument to the University which he thought the most proper place to preserve one of the most curious remains of American antiquity. The Professors of the University, monks of the Order of St. Dominic, were unwilling to expose this idol to the sight of the Mexican youth, and caused it to be reburied in one of the passages of the College. But Mr. Humboldt had it disinterred at the request of the Bishop of Monterey.

“A highly curious specimen of Mexican sculpture is an exceeding hard stone resembling hornstein, a coarse kind of jade, it is a species of compact tale, of most elaborate workmanship, and the bust of a priest, or perhaps of the idol representing the Sun. The {103} head is crowned with a high mitre-shaped cap, decorated with jewels and feathers, it has long pendant earrings. The hands are raised, the right sustains something resembling a knotted club, while the left takes hold of a festoon of flowers which descends from the head; all the other parts are covered with the great rattlesnake, whose enormous head and jaws are on the right side of the figure, while the backs and sides are covered with the scales and rattles of the deadly reptile.”

Our prescribed limits are now reached, and we are able to add but little to what has already been advanced exhibiting the widespread prevalence of this singular form of worship. Again and again has wonderment been expressed that it should ever be possible for a creature so disgusting to become an object of worship, but so it has been, and no age or country seems to have been strange to it. Very early indeed in history men began to worship a serpent, that brazen one of the Exodus, which Hezekiah destroyed on account of the idolatry into which it led the people. But if that object was put away, the hope that the worship would cease was vain, for it started up amongst the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Phœnicians, the Egyptians, and spread into Greece, Esthonia, Finland, Italy, Persia, Hindustan, Ceylon, China, Japan, Burmah, Java, Arabia, Syria, Ethiopia, Britain, Mexico, and Peru.

Such was its extent—wide as the world itself, and vast beyond estimate or description was its influence over the minds of those who came within its reach. Let the curious reader who would know more, and who would make himself acquainted with the multitudinous forms in which the emblem was depicted, study the works of such writers as Kingsford and Montfaucon, with their numerous and well executed plates, and he will meditate with astonishment upon the singular fascination which this repulsive reptile seems to have exercised over the human mind. He is said, we know, so to fascinate the victim he is about to seize as his prey that the unhappy creature is deprived of all power of resistance, a fascination no less overwhelming seems to have paralyzed the human mind and caused it to adopt from some cause or other such a repelling reptile as an object of worship. The spell is broken now, however, and but little remains of what was once so universal, beyond the earth mounds where its temples stood and the half ruined sculptures collected in the museums of civilized countries.

The End.

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