The Student's Mythology A Compendium of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Hindoo, Chinese, Thibetian, Scandinavian, Celtic, Aztec, and Peruvian Mythologies

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[268] assembled around the sacred or “parent fire,” which the Arch-druid extinguished. At this signal every fire disappeared, and, in an incredibly short space of time, darkness settled on the island. The chiefs and princes, together with the assembled people, then assisted in silent awe, while the Druids performed their nocturnal rites. At length the fire was rekindled; torches lighted at the sacred flame were passed from hand to hand, and the country was soon illuminated by the Baal fires which blazed on every hill. The chief scene of these solemnities was Ouisneach, in the centre of the island, but the same rite was performed in many other places.

According to what seems an authentic tradition, it was during such a ceremony that St. Patrick obtained the opportunity of holding a public disputation with the Druids in the presence of the king and chieftains assembled at Tara. It was Easter Eve, and the Saint, who must have been well aware of the penalty of death attached to such an act, commanded his disciples to light the paschal fire at the moment when all around was plunged in darkness. The flame was seen at Tara, and the Druids called loudly for the punishment of the sacrilegious strangers. They were seized and brought before the assembly, but the result was favorable to the missionaries, and from that day may be dated the rapid though peaceful decline of Druidism in Ireland.

The idolatrous rites peculiar to the season of [269] the summer solstice have been long forgotten but the custom of lighting fires upon that day, still prevails. The bonfires of St. John’s Eve (June 21st) recall, at least, one feature of the ancient Druid festival.

Ques. What rites were observed on the first day of November?

Ans. The day was consecrated to the Moon, (called in Ireland Samhain,) and was observed both in Gaul and in the British islands. It would seem that the spirits of the departed were also propitiated at this season, and many curious traditions are connected with its observance.

Before the invasion of Cæsar, Britain was so little known to the ancient Gauls, as to be still a land of mystery. They believed that on every feast of the moon, the souls of those who had died during the year, were obliged to repair thither for judgment.

Connected with this, Procopius relates an Armorican legend of which some traces may yet be found in Brittany. At the foot of the promontory of Plogoff, around the sacred isle of Sena, are scattered rocks on which the sea breaks with an unceasing moan. Thither assemble, on the night of judgment, the spirits of the dead. Faint wailings are heard, and pale phantoms are seen gliding above the waves, which they are not yet spiritual enough to cross without human succor. At the hour of midnight the sailors and fisher men along the coast hear mysterious voices calling [270] at their doors. They rise and find strange barks waiting on the shore. Scarcely have they entered these, when the light craft is weighed down by a ghostly band. The terrified pilot has no need of helm or sail, for the barks are borne westwardly with incredible velocity. When they touch the misty shores of Britain, there is a hollow murmur—the boats ride lightly on the water—the souls are gone.

The superstitious observances which are still practised on November, or All Hallow Eve, in Ireland, Scotland, and some parts of England, are of pagan origin, and seem to be relics of this festival.

Ques. At what period may we fix the decline of Druidism?

Ans. It was suppressed in Gaul by the Roman conquerors, who built temples, and introduced the worship of their own gods, adopting also those of the conquered race. Druidism retired, step by step, before this more classic heathenism, but found a temporary refuge in the German forests and in Armorica. It was suppressed in Britain during the reign of Nero. The persecuted Druids took refuge in the island of Mona or Anglesea, whence they were driven by the Roman troops with great slaughter. They found a last asylum in the island of Iona. Here they maintained a certain influence up to the latter part of the sixth century, when the inhabitants of the island were converted by the preaching of St. [271] Columba, the Apostle of the Highlands. This missionary was a native of Ireland, where Christianity had been established for nearly a century.

Ques. What traces still remain of the ancient Druidical worship?

Ans. Certain monuments, which are called, according to their form, menhirs, dolmens or cromlechs.

Ques. What are the menhirs?

Ans. The word is derived from the old Breton man, stone; and hir, long. They are upright blocks of stone, often terminating in a point; and are for the most part rough and unshapely; the ordinary height is from seven to twelve feet; but in some rare instances, they exceed thirty feet in height. The purpose of these menhirs is not well understood. Where they stand singly, or in groups of two or three, they probably mark a spot rendered memorable by some important event. Similar monuments were common in primitive times, as we learn from Scripture; when the Israelites had crossed the dry bed of the Jordan, Joshua placed twelve stones on the bank, as a remembrance of the miracle. Jacob marked in the same manner the spot on which he had been favored by a celestial vision. In certain places on the Scandinavian peninsula, extensive groups of menhirs occur, scattered irregularly over the plain; these are supposed to mark ancient battle-fields. Where the stones are arranged in a “cromlech” or circular form, there is [272] generally a dolmen in the centre. The dolmen is a large flat stone, placed like a table, upon two others which are set upright. Some of these were evidently altars, as the flat stone on the top is furrowed and slightly inclined to facilitate as it were the flowing of blood. Dolmens are found also in straight lines, forming a sort of covered gallery.

Ques. Where are the most remarkable of these monuments?

Ans. On the continent of Europe, the most extensive series is that of Carnac in Brittany. In the midst of a wide heath, stand rude blocks of gray granite, set on end; they are angular, and show no marks of polish. These menhirs are arranged in eleven lines, forming regular alleys. The blocks numbered formerly about ten thousand; but there are now many gaps in the stony lines, as every house in the vicinity seems to have been built from this convenient quarry.

At Stonehenge, in England, is a large cromlech arranged in two circles and two ovals. There are in all about one hundred and forty stones, of which the smallest are estimated to weigh ten or twelve, and the largest seventy tons. In the centre of the work is a massive slab of fine sandstone, supposed to have been an altar. This cromlech is surrounded by a trench and an earthen embankment. Numerous ancient barrows, or burial mounds, are found in the neighborhood. In Ireland, monuments constructed of stone are [273] sometimes found; but circular earthworks are more common. In this country, as in Brittany, many popular superstitions still attach to these remains of ancient paganism. Almost within our own day, many an Irish peasant has made his scanty harvest still smaller, rather than violate with the plough, the grass-grown “rath,” or Druid circle. Death within the year is the supposed penalty of such an act. In Brittany, malignant dwarfs and night-elves still haunt the deserted cromlech, and have power at certain times, to wreak their malice on the belated traveller. Some of these giant stones are themselves subject to mysterious laws. Once in a hundred years, they are obliged, at the hour of midnight, to pass in weird procession to bathe in the waters of the Northern Ocean.

Then for a few brief moments the stars look down on the riches buried in ancient times beneath the enchanted circle. It is the treasure-seeker’s golden opportunity, but woe to the avaricious wretch who lingers over the spoil. He is crushed by the swift returning stones, and the morning sun finds the grim sentinels silent and motionless as before, bearing no trace of their wild nocturnal march.





Ques. What peculiarity has been remarked in the mythology of the Aztecs or ancient Mexicans?

Ans. Its incongruity. On the one hand we find their priests inculcating the most sublime truths of natural religion, and the purest maxims of morality, while on the other, their sacrifices and public worship were marked by a spirit of unexampled ferocity.

Ques. How has this been explained?

Ans. It is supposed that the religion of the Aztecs was derived from two distinct sources. The ancient Toltecs, who preceded them in Mexico, were a comparatively humane and enlightened race; they retained many of the highest principles of natural religion, united, probably, with truths derived from primitive tradition. The Aztecs seem to have adopted the religion of their more civilized predecessors without abandoning [275] their own dark and cruel superstitions. Hence the contradictions and inconsistencies of their mythology.

Ques. What did the Aztecs believe of God?

Ans. They believed in one Supreme Lord and Creator, to whom they attributed all the divine perfections. The prayers which they addressed to Him recall, in many instances, the very phraseology of Scripture.

Ques. Did the Aztecs worship any other deity?

Ans. Yes, they worshipped many subordinate divinities who were supposed to preside over the elements, the changes of the seasons and the various occupations of men. Of these gods, thirteen held the most exalted rank, while the inferior class numbered over two hundred.

Ques. Who may be considered the chief of these subordinate divinities?

Ans. Huitzilopotchli, a sort of Mexican Mars, who was, in fact, the patron deity of the nation. His temples were the most stately of all the public edifices, and his altars in every part of the empire were continually reeking with the blood of human victims.

Ques. Who was Quetzalcoatl?

Ans. The Aztecs, like many nations of the old world, had their Golden Age. During this blissful period, Quetzalcoatl, god of the air, dwelt on earth, and instructed men in the use of metals, in agriculture and every useful art. Under his beneficent rule, the earth brought forth its fruits without [276] care or labor: and such was the fertility of the soil that a single ear of corn was as much as a man could carry. The dyer’s art was not needed, for the cotton took, as it grew, the richest and most varied hues. The rarest flowers filled the air with perfume, and the melody of birds was heard in every grove. This happy state was not destined to last; Quetzalcoatl incurred the anger of one of the greater gods, and was obliged to abandon the country. He proceeded to the shores of the Mexican gulf, where he took leave of his followers, promising that, when many years had rolled away, he would revisit their descendants. He then embarked in a skiff made of serpent’s skins, and sailed eastward towards the fabled land of Tlapallan.

Quetzalcoatl was described by the Mexicans as tall, with a fair complexion, long, dark hair, and a flowing beard. They looked confidently for the return of the benevolent deity, and this tradition had no small influence in preparing the way for the future success of the Spaniards.

It is evident that Quetzalcoatl was the name given by the Mexicans to some beneficent ruler who instructed them in the arts of civilized life. It is singular that he should have been described with every characteristic of the European race; and some have conjectured that he was indeed a native of the Eastern hemisphere, cast by some strange accident among the simple natives of the New World.

[277] Ques. Did the Aztecs worship any household divinities?

Ans. Yes; the images of their penates, or household gods, were to be found in every dwelling.

Ques. What did the Aztecs believe with regard to a future life?

Ans. Their priests taught that the wicked were sent after death to expiate their sins in a region of eternal darkness. Those who died of certain diseases were entitled, after death, to a state of indolent contentment; but the Aztec paradise, like the Elysium of the Greeks and Romans, was reserved for their warriors and heroes. In this class were included those who were offered in sacrifice. These privileged souls passed at once into the presence of the Sun, whom they accompanied with songs and choral dances in his journey through the heavens. After a certain period, their spirits went to animate the golden clouds which floated over the gardens of paradise, or, assuming the form of singing birds, revelled amid the blossoms and odors of its sacred groves.

Ques. What peculiar rite was practised by the Aztecs in the naming of their children?

Ans. The lips and bosom of the infant were sprinkled with water. During the ceremony they implored the Lord, that the holy drops might wash away the sin that was given to it before the foundation of the world, so that the child might be born anew.

[278] Ques. How did the Aztecs bury their dead?

Ans. Immediately after death, the corpse was clothed in certain sacred habiliments, and strewed with charms, which were supposed to be necessary as a defence against the dangers of the unknown road which the spirit was about to travel. The body was then burned, and the ashes, carefully collected in a funeral urn, were placed in the house of the deceased. In this mode of burial, we may notice a certain resemblance to the funeral rites of the ancient Greeks and Romans. There was, however, this distinction, that although the latter occasionally sacrificed their captive enemies to the manes of a departed warrior, this offering formed no necessary part of the burial rite; on the other hand, the obsequies of an Aztec noble were always accompanied by the sacrifice of unoffending slaves, the number of victims being proportioned to the rank of the deceased.

Ques. Did the Aztec priests form a distinct order?

Ans. They were altogether distinct from the people, and formed a numerous and powerful hierarchy. Their different functions were exactly regulated; those who were best skilled in music formed the choirs—Others arranged the festivals according to the calendar. Some were engaged in the education of youth, and others had charge of the hieroglyphical paintings and oral traditions, [279] while the dreadful rites of sacrifice were reserved to the chief dignitaries of the order.

Ques. Were women permitted to exercise any sacerdotal functions?

Ans. Yes; the Aztec priestesses exercised every function except that of sacrifice. They superintended the schools in which the daughters of the higher and middle classes received their education. These schools, as well as those for boys, directed by the priests, were under the strictest discipline. Ordinary faults were punished with extreme rigor; graver offences, with death.

Ques. How was this numerous priesthood maintained?

Ans. A certain quantity of land was annexed to each temple, and the priests were further enriched by first fruits and other offerings. This large provision became necessary from the fact that the Aztec priests were allowed to marry. The law prescribed that any surplus, beyond what was actually required for their support, should be distributed among the poor. This, and other benevolent provisions, seem very inconsistent with the cruelties practised in their public worship.

Ques. What was the form of the Mexican temples?

Ans. They were solid pyramids, constructed of earth, but completely cased in brick or stone. They were disposed in three or four stories, each smaller than that below. At the top was a broad area, in which stood one or more towers, containing [280] images of the presiding deities. Before these towers were generally placed, besides the dreadful stone of sacrifice, two lofty altars on which burned perpetual fires. So numerous were these sacred fires in the city of Mexico, that the streets were brilliantly lighted even on the darkest night. The ascent was made, in some cases, by a stairway which led directly up the centre of the western face of the pyramid. More generally, it was so arranged, that the religious processions were obliged to pass two or three times around the pyramid before reaching the summit. The Mexicans called their temples Teocallis, or “houses of God.”

Ques. Are any of these structures still in existence?

Ans. Yes; of those which yet remain, the pyramid of Cholula is the largest, and perhaps the most perfect. It measures 176 feet in perpendicular height, and is 1425 feet square; it covers 45 acres. It is very ancient, having been built before the Aztecs conquered Anahuac, as that part of Mexico was formerly named.

Ques. What sacrifices were offered by the Aztecs?

Ans. Their sacrifices present the same striking contrasts which we find in everything connected with their religion.—Some festivals were of a light and joyous character, being celebrated with choral songs and dances. Processions of votaries crowned with garlands, bore offerings to the temple; [281] fruits, ripe maize, and the sweet incense of the copal and other odoriferous gums; while the birds and domestic animals offered in sacrifice were consumed at the banquets with which the festival concluded. These innocent rites were evidently of Toltec origin; the dreadful practice of human sacrifice was introduced by the Aztec conquerors, whose wars were often undertaken for no other purpose than to procure victims for their altars.

Ques. Were these sacrifices numerous?

Ans. They were introduced only about two hundred years before the Spanish Conquest. They were at first exceptional, but became more frequent as the Aztec empire extended, until the number of those sacrificed annually throughout the empire is calculated at twenty thousand, which is the lowest estimate given. It was customary to preserve the skulls of the victims in buildings erected for the purpose. One hundred and thirty-six thousand of these ghastly relics were counted in a single edifice. Women were occasionally offered in sacrifice, but Tlaloc, the god of rain, could only be propitiated by the blood of young children and infants. In seasons of drought, these innocent victims, decked in the richest attire, and crowned with flowers, were borne to the temple in open litters, their cries being drowned in the wild chanting of the priests.

The feast of Tezcatlipoca, one of the chief gods, who was called the “Soul of the World,” was [282] celebrated by the sacrifice of a single victim, with regard to whom many peculiar ceremonies were observed. A year before the sacrifice, a young man, distinguished for grace and beauty, was chosen from among the captives. He was splendidly attired, surrounded by every luxury, and was received everywhere with the homage due to the divinity whom he was supposed to represent.

When the fatal day arrived, the victim, who had been trained to perform his part with calmness and dignity, was conducted to the temple. As the melancholy procession wound up the sides of the pyramid, he played upon a musical instrument; at first, joyous airs, which grew graver and more mournful as the cortege advanced, until at length he broke his lute, and cast it aside. He then threw from him, one by one, his chaplets of flowers, and stood unadorned before the stone of sacrifice. The bloody work was soon accomplished, and the yet palpitating heart of the victim was thrown at the feet of the idol. The career of this captive, and his progress to the altar, was intended as an allegorical representation of human life, which, joyous at first, terminates in sorrow and in death. In speaking of human sacrifices, we have yet to mention the most revolting feature. The Mexicans, both men and women, feasted on the bodies of the victims; and no Aztec noble would venture to entertain his friends on a festival day without placing before them this loathsome food.

[283] It is worthy of remark that Montezuma surpassed all his predecessors in the pomp with which he celebrated the festivals of the Aztec gods, and the number of human victims which he offered on their altars.