Gateway to the Classics: Mexico by Margaret Duncan Coxhead
Mexico by  Margaret Duncan Coxhead

A Mysterious People

When Tendile with his stately retinue had left the Spanish camp, captain and priest, soldier and sailor, gave vent to loud-voiced wonder. Where had this dark-skinned race learned to weave such exquisite fabrics? Whence came their skill in metal-working? Whence their proud dignity of bearing? Where above all had they acquired the high art of government? Well organised indeed must be this Indian empire, when the monarch from his capital beyond the mountains could rule with so sure a hand his most distant provinces.

Well might the Spaniards marvel. And, as they came to know more fully, in their strenuous fight for gold, this rich civilisation with its mixture of savage barbarism, their wonder daily grew. But no mission had the rude conquerors to peer into the origin and history of the mysterious people they purposed to despoil, and in the fires of their fierce bigotry was doomed to perish many a record which might have revealed to us the secret of the past.

In the far away bygone ages did these unknown tribes, crossing vast tracts of land and water, come from the Old World to the New? Curiously alike were many of their legends and customs to those of the Egyptians, the Hebrews, the Chinese, and the Tartars. Did they perchance cross from the coasts of Africa ere the mighty earthquake in one fatal day and night engulfed for ever beneath the billows Atlantis, that vast island which stretched, so the Greeks believed, across the ocean from Libya westward? Or was Asia, the great mother of nations, their ancient homeland? The wild wars of the Tartars may have driven many a tribe across the Behring Strait. This seems perhaps the most probable of theories. There is certainly something of the Mongol in the Mexican physique.

In the land of Anahuac settled a roaming people whose story we can only dimly guess. If they came from the wintry north, this country, which is now called Mexico, must have seemed a paradise on earth. Between two high mountain ranges stretches a lofty plateau, beautiful alike in scenery and climate. Lying a bare twenty degrees north of the equator, it would be hot as the plains of India if it were not for its altitude. Such a height, indeed, in the latitude of New York would mean an Arctic climate, but to Mexico it gives almost perpetual spring. Midway across the plateau is a valley with five fair lakes, while from the snow-capped mountains rivers flow eastward to the Atlantic and westward to the Pacific.

Almost all early civilisations have taken their rise in warm, well-watered lands, not too enervating in climate. In Egypt, China, Chaldea, the people gained an easy livelihood from the rich alluvial soil, and had time to think of arts and crafts. So it was in Anahuac, whose very name means near the water. While the Indians of North America endured all the hardships and uncertainties of a hunter's life, the dwellers in this sunnier land learned to till the soil, and then, rewarded by its rich yield, had leisure and strength to invent many an art which added to the beauty and comfort of life. Lost is the history of these primitive inhabitants, but massive ruins of palaces, temples, and pyramids, ancient perhaps as those of Egypt, bear witness to their skill.

Earliest of the settlers in Anahuac, from whom tradition tries to lift the veil, were the Toltecs. From "an ancient red land" they came far away in the north, driven from their home by their fierce neighbours the Chichimecs. They were led by seven chieftains but God was their great commander, and from the stars Hueman, their high priest, read His will. A hundred years they wandered before they reached the land of Anahuac, and founded there, towards the close of the seventh century, a wonderful empire. North of the valley of the five lakes they built their capital Tula. So many and so fine were their palaces and temples that the name Toltec became a synonym for architect. In astrology, soothsaying, and the calculation of time, they were well versed. "The aged Hueman," who must have lived three hundred years, or had successors of the same name, "assembled all the wise men to join him in his final work on earth" some time after the foundation of the empire. Together they prepared the "Book of God," in which they represented by paintings every event in their history from the Creation to their arrival at Tula. In this divine book, which, unfortunately, is known to us only through tradition, they depicted their knowledge of agriculture, of metal-working, and of other arts, their system of government, the rites of their religion, their reading of the stars, and mystical prophecies concerning the future.

The Toltecs were not warlike, and after four hundred years their empire seems to have melted away before the onslaughts of the Chichimecs who had followed them from the north. Savage and ignorant, the new-comers lived only on game and natural roots and fruits, were clothed only in the skins of beasts, and had no weapons save the bow and arrow. Their sway in Anahuac was short, for they were speedily followed and absorbed by more civilized tribes, worthier successors to the Toltecs, who still lingered in the land of their lost empire.

This race, which inherited the Toltec glory, consisted of several kindred tribes. They all left their ancient home at the same time, but the Tezcucans were the first to enter Anahuac, while the Aztecs or Mexicans, lingering on the way, did not reach the land of plenty until the beginning of the thirteenth century, some time after the settlement of their brethren.

According to tradition these tribes came, like the Toltecs, from the far north. "Our fathers," they said, "dwelt in a happy and prosperous place called Aztlan, which means whiteness. In this place there is a great mountain in the middle of the water which is called Culhuacan, the crooked mountain, because it has the point somewhat turned over towards the bottom. In this mountain were some hollows where our fathers lived for many years; and there they had much repose. . . . They went about in canoes, and made furrows in which they planted maize, red peppers, tomatoes, beans, and all kinds of seed that we eat." But at last there was heard in the forest for many days a bird crying "Tihui! tihui!" which means "Let us go! let us go!" The priests declared it was a message from the gods bidding their people seek a new home, so they set forth on the long wandering which brought them at length to Anahuac.

The Aztecs, who came last to the beautiful valley, found that the Tezcucans had already built on the largest of the five fair lakes a city, to which they had given the name Tezcuco. From place to place in the land of Anahuac the Aztecs roamed, but nearly a hundred years went by ere they made a permanent settlement. It was said to be in the year 1325 that they paused one day on the western shore of Lake Tezcuco, and there beheld an eagle with a serpent in its talons, perched upon a cactus, which sprang from a hole in the naked rock. "It is an omen!" cried the high priest, "here your wanderings shall cease, and here you shall found a great city." Here then the Aztecs sank piles in the shallows of the lake on which to build their huts, and a temple for their god, to whom they offered in sacrifice a human being. Thus arose Tenochtitlan, which means a cactus on a stone. In after years the city was called also Mexico, in obedience to the command of the war-god Huitzilopotchli or Mexitli. Giving to his people the distinguishing mark of a patch of gum and feathers to wear upon their foreheads, he ordained "Henceforth bear ye not the name of Azteca, but Mexica." Fierce and warlike, the Aztecs soon became a power in the land, for, keeping many of their own blood-thirsty customs, they acquired most of the arts and crafts of the Toltecs.

The Tezcucans, a gentler tribe, had entered meanwhile still more fully into the heritage of skill and knowledge left behind by the old inhabitants. But suddenly in 1418 a terrible disaster befell them. The savage chief of the neighbouring Tepanecs swooped down on their provinces, slew their monarch, and reigned supreme and merciless in beautiful Tezcuco.

The history of these times is told by a Tezcucan chronicler, who wrote soon after the Spanish Conquest. He wrote in Castilian, that the insolent white men might read of the vanished glories of the dark race, whose empire they had trampled into dust with remorseless iron heel.

Romantic are the stories he tells of the adventures of Nezahualcoyotl, the heir to the Tezcucan crown, who was forced to wander, like Alfred of England, a fugitive and outcast in the mountains and forests. The young prince was pursued for many years by the vindictive hate of the Tepanec usurper, who promised to whoever should capture him, dead or alive, broad lands and the hand of a noble lady. But no Tezcucan was base enough to betray his prince. One day the fugitive just turned the crest of a hill as his pursuers climbed it on the other side. Breathless and driven, in all the wide country no hiding-place could he see. Fields of chian  lay around him, and a solitary maiden was patiently reaping this plant, the seed of which made a pleasing drink. The prince flung himself at her feet, and swiftly she piled over him the stalks she had been cutting, and turned once more to her labour. The pursuers passed by and Nezahualcoyotl breathed again. On another occasion he was hidden by some loyal soldiers in a large drum, around which they were dancing. Even torture could not wring from the faithful people the secret of the hiding-places of their prince, and they only awaited an opportunity to rise against the Tepanec tyrant.

The opportunity came when the Mexicans, now a powerful nation, proffered their aid. The Tepanecs were defeated, and the usurper was dragged from his palace, sacrificed with all the bloody rites of the fierce Aztec religion, and the Tezcucan king was restored to his throne.

This was the glorious age in the annals of Anahuac on which the Tezcucan chronicler loves to dwell. Guided by Nezahualcoyotl, the wisest and most enlightened of Indian monarchs, the three powers of Tezcuco, Mexico, and Tlacopan made an alliance so triumphant and so steadfast that it endured unbroken until the coming of a strange white nation wrought ruin to all the glories of this wonderful Indian race.

Glories indeed they were. Even the proud princes of Europe need not have disdained to imitate some of the institutions of the Indian Nezahualcoyotl. What king at that time could boast in his realm a council of music? Great power had this body in Tezcuco, and many were its duties. It encouraged and supervised, not music only, but every science and art. With zealous care it watched over the education of the young, and woe betide the teacher or pupil whom its examinations found wanting! Poets and historians were summoned before the council on certain days to compete for the rich prizes which the three allied princes were pleased graciously to bestow. Nezahualcoyotl himself was a poet, and very beautiful are some of the songs which have come down to us in the Spanish translation of the Tezcucan chronicler.

No wonder that under such a king the Tezcucans became the most refined and civilised of all the people of Anahuac. The Mexicans, their rivals in luxury, splendour, and power, were but humble disciples in the crowning glory of science and culture.

The Mexican king was glad to imitate the form of government and code of laws which the great Nezahualcoyotl devised. Very stringent were these laws, and very perfect was the system by which they were enforced even in the remotest districts of the Tezcucan dominions. In every province were numerous officers, appointed by the people themselves, whose duty it was to watch the conduct of a certain number of families, and report any breach of the law to the provincial court of justice. Important cases were referred to the supreme council of justice, which met every eighty days in the capital.

The splendour of this supreme tribunal, over which the king himself presided, is described by the old Tezcucan chronicler: "In the royal palace of Tezcuco," he says, "was a courtyard, on the opposite sides of which were two halls of justice. In the principal one, called the 'tribunal of God,' was a throne of pure gold, inlaid with turquoises and other precious stones. On a stool, in front, was placed a human skull, crowned with an immense emerald, of a pyramidal form, and surmounted by an aigrette of brilliant plumes and precious stones. The skull was laid on a heap of military weapons, shields, quivers, bows and arrows. The walls were hung with tapestry, made of the hair of different wild animals, of rich and various colours, festooned by gold rings, and embroidered with figures of birds and flowers. Above the throne was a canopy of variegated plumage, from the centre of which shot forth resplendent rays of gold and jewels. The other tribunal, called 'the king's,' was also surmounted by a gorgeous canopy of feathers, on which were emblazoned the royal arms. Here the sovereign gave public audience and communicated his dispatches. But when he decided important causes, or confirmed a capital sentence, he passed to 'the tribunal of God,' attended by the fourteen great lords of the realm, marshalled according to their rank. Then, putting on his mitred crown, encrusted with precious stones, and holding a golden arrow, by way of sceptre, in his left hand, he laid his right upon the skull and pronounced judgment."

Magnificent as an Asiatic despot and stern in the execution of his laws, Nezahualcoyotl yet loved his people, and sometimes chose to discard his state and wander in disguise among the humblest of his subjects. It is said that he met one day a boy gathering sticks in a field.

"Why do you not go into a neighbouring forest?" inquired the king.

Sullenly the boy replied, "It is the king's wood, and death is the punishment for trespass."

"What kind of man is your king?" asked Nezahualcoyotl curiously.

"A very hard man," grumbled the boy, "who denies his people what God has given them."

What was the dismay of the boy when he was summoned next day to the palace and confronted with his monarch in whom he at once recognised the curious stranger! He soon found he had no cause to fear. Rewarding him for his honesty, the king declared that he intended henceforth to alter the severity of his forest laws.

Many such stories are told by the Tezcucan historian, who declares that in seasons of scarcity the great king was "particularly bountiful, remitting the taxes of his vassals, and supplying their wants from the royal granaries." Taxes were paid in the produce and manufactures of the country, and the share which each district must contribute was explicitly laid down. On certain days there would flock to the capital tamanes, or carriers, bearing chests of maize, chian, beans, ground chocolate, loaves of white salt, reams of paper, pieces of armour, bags of gold dust, tiles of gold, loads of mantles, bundles of cotton, handfuls of feathers, copper axes, precious stones, and many other rich and rare commodities. Adjoining the royal palace were vast warehouses and granaries where the tribute was stored, and the king's receiver-general kept an exact account of every contribution.

Content though the Mexicans were to adopt the policy and institutions of Nezahualcoyotl, they refused to follow his lead in the vital question of religion. Rather did they seek to imbue the Tezcucans with their own dark, blood-stained superstition, and even in his own realm the great king did not really succeed in his attempt to restore the pure faith of the ancient Toltecs, though human sacrifices were limited to slaves and captives. Once, indeed, the king himself, in a moment of weakness and despair, sank under the influence of the priesthood who lusted always for human blood. Many wives he had and many children, but the queen, his one lawful wife, had borne him no son. Who then would be his successor? "The gods," cried the priests, "must have victims ere you can have a son!" The king consented, but all in vain did the blood of slaughtered captives stain the altars of the gods. Never again did Nezahualcoyotl swerve from his enlightened faith. "These idols of wood and stone can neither hear nor feel," he solemnly declared, "much less could they make the heavens and the earth, and man, the lord of it. These must be the work of the all-powerful, unknown God, creator of the universe, on whom alone I must rely."

Forty days did he fast and pray, and then strove more earnestly than ever to wean his people from the ferocious rites of their Aztec allies. To "the unknown God, the cause of causes," he built a temple, and on the summit he placed a tower nine stories high, to represent the nine heavens; a tenth story was added with a black roof sparkling with golden stars without and inlaid with precious stones within. On the top of the tower were musical instruments to summon the worshippers to prayers. Before the temple was completed the longed-for son was born, and named by his father Nezahualpilli, which means "the prince for whom one has fasted."

Retiring to his country palace the old king spent his last years in the peaceful study of astrology and in meditations on death and the after-life, which he expressed in sad but beautiful poetry. Did he perhaps foresee the downfall of his race as he sang? "All things on earth have their term, and, in the most joyous career of their vanity and splendour, their strength fails, and they sink into the dust . . . . Rivers, torrents, and streams move onward to their destination. Not one flows back to its pleasant source. They rush onward, hastening to bury themselves in the deep bosom of the ocean. The things of yesterday are no more to-day; and the things of to-day shall cease, perhaps, on the morrow." Yet the plaintive song ends bravely, "Let us take courage, illustrious nobles and chieftains, true friends and loyal subjects, let us aspire to that heaven where all is eternal and corruption cannot come. The horrors of the tomb are but the cradle of the sun, and the dark shadows of death are brilliant lights for the stars."

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