An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 133

[Pg 296] smith-craft and magic, manufactured arms for the gods and brewed ale for them. Brigit was a goddess of poetry and wisdom, and, like the Greek Pallas Athene, may have been at one time the goddess of a cult especially female. The Morrigan, Naman, and Macha are war-goddesses of sanguinary character.


Among purely British gods, Bran, son of Llyr, the sea-god, presided over minstrelsy, and may have been a god of the fertile Underworld or the realm of the dead, the Celtic Elysium. Gwydion, also a bard, is a diviner as well, and, like the Greek Proteus, is expert at changing his form. Amaethon appears to have been an agricultural deity, and the name seems to be connected with amaeth, the Welsh for 'plough-man.' He is credited with bringing certain domestic animals from the Land of the Gods to the World of Men, and this suggests totemism. Arianrhod, wife and sister of Gwydion, is perhaps an earth-goddess, but her significance is obscure. Bilé is probably a sun-god, and is equated with Apollo. Keridwen is a goddess dwelling in an under-water Elysium. She is described as a goddess of inspiration and poetry, and possesses a cauldron which is the source of all inspiration. Her son Avaggdu was cursed with hideousness, so his mother resolved to boil the cauldron of inspiration to compensate him for his ugliness. Gwion Bach, requested to watch it until it boils, steals the gift of inspiration for himself. He flees, and is pursued by Keridwen, but changes into various shapes. She follows his example, and at length in the form of a hen she swallows him as a grain of wheat. She later gives birth to him, throws him into the sea, and he becomes the bard Taliesin, famous for his poetic fire, the gift of the cauldron of inspiration.


The mythologies of America are chiefly of interest because they illustrate and supplement the faiths of the Old World, and this is especially the case with the mythology of Mexico, which represents a phase of religious evolution considerably more[Pg 297] advanced than the beliefs of the red man of the North American plains or the barbarians of the South American continent. In ancient Mexico we have one of the only three American mythological systems which attained anything like religious cohesion, or exemplified the higher reaches of ethical religious thought. The religion of ancient Mexico has been classified as a religion of the lower cultus, but the folly of such a classification is extreme, and it has, of course, emanated from persons who have made no especial study of the mythology of Mexico. To range it with such religions as those of the aborigines of Australia or those of some African tribes is incorrect, as a brief account of it will prove to the reader.

When the Spaniards finally conquered Mexico the more intelligent among them, although for the most part military men and priests, began to interest themselves in the antiquities and religion of the people they had conquered. The accounts they have left of the Aztec faith are, of course, unscientific, but we can gather a great deal from them by analogy and comparison with Old World faiths. We find that the Aztec population of Mexico worshipped gods who, if they did not form a pantheon or hierarchy, had each a more or less distinct sphere of his own. One of these, Tezcatlipoca, has been called the Jupiter of the Aztec pantheon, and seems to deserve this name.

Bernal Diaz, one of the Spanish conquerors, describes this god as having the face of a bear, and this error has been handed down from generation to generation of writers on Mexican mythology, is repeated in books of reference, and is generally accepted because of its antiquity. As I have shown elsewhere (Edinburgh Review for October 1920), Tezcatlipoca was probably a development of the obsidian stone, which was employed for the purpose of making both sacrificial knives and polished mirrors in which future events were supposed to be viewed. This stone, too, was regarded as capable of raising wind or tempests. Tezcatlipoca was supposed to rush through the highways at night, and in this connexion he probably symbolized the night wind, but from analogy with other North American Indian gods of a like character it is most probable[Pg 298] that in later times he came to be thought of as a personification of the breath of life. The wind is usually regarded as the giver of breath and the source of immediate life. One of Tezcatlipoca's names was Yoalli Ehecatl, or Night Wind, and this leads us to suspect that he was the giver of all life. In many mythologies the name of the chief deity is derived from the same root as the word 'wind,' and in others the words 'soul' and 'breath' have a common origin. Thus the Hebrew word ruah is equivalent to both wind and spirit, as is the name of the Egyptian god Kneph. Strangely enough, however, Tezcatlipoca was also regarded as a death-dealer, and some of the prayers addressed to him are pitiful in their tone of entreaty that he will refrain from slaying his devotees. The probable reason for this is that his worship, however it became so, was so extremely popular as almost to eclipse most other Mexican deities, and owing to this popularity his idea achieved such an enormous significance in the Aztec mind that he began to be regarded as a god of fate and fortune with power to ban or bless as he saw fit, and therefore to be sedulously placated by prayer and sacrifice.


Next to him in importance, but scarcely less in the popular estimation, was Uitzilopochtli, tutelar deity of the Aztec people and god of war. Legends told how he led the Aztec tribes from their home of origin into the valley of Mexico in the shape of a humming-bird. He was represented as wearing a garment of humming-bird's feathers, and his face and limbs were painted black and yellow. Enormous sacrifices of human beings were made at stated intervals to this god, whose great teocalli or pyramid temple in the city of Mexico was literally a human shambles, where prisoners of war were immolated on his altar; but he also appears, like some other war-gods, to have an agricultural significance. His mother was the goddess of flowers, and he himself was associated with the summer and its abundance of crops and fruit. This was because of his possession of the war-spear or dart, which with the Aztecs as with[Pg 299] many another people symbolized the lightning and therefore the thunder-cloud with its fructifying rain.

But the real rain-god, or rather the god of moisture, of the Aztecs was Tlaloc, upon whose co-operation the success of the crops depended. He dwelt in the mountains which surround the Mexican valley, and he is represented in sculpture in a semi-recumbent position, with the upper part of the body raised upon the elbows and the knees half drawn up, to enable him to hold the vase in which the sacred grain was kept. The tlaloque or rain-spirits were regarded as his progeny, and he manifested himself in three ways, by the flash, the thunder, and the thunderbolt. His dwelling, Tlalocan, was a fruitful and abounding Paradise where those who were drowned, struck by lightning, or who had died of dropsy were certain to go. In the native paintings part of his face is of a dark colour, probably to represent the thunder-cloud, Numerous children were sacrificed to him annually, and if they wept it was regarded as a happy omen for a rainy season.

One of the most important and picturesque Aztec deities was Quetzalcoatl, probably a god of the pre-Aztec inhabitants of Mexico, the Toltecs. The name signifies 'feathered serpent', and the myths tell how he played the part of culture-hero in Mexico, teaching the people the arts and sciences; but by the cunning of Tezcatlipoca he was driven from the land, and, embarked upon a raft of serpents, he floated away to the East, the land of sunrise, where dwelt his father, the sun. A number of authorities have seen in Quetzalcoatl a god of the air, and even a moon-deity. He is obviously the trade wind, which carries the rain, and is driven from the country by Tezcatlipoca, the anti-trade wind.

A regular group of gods presided over the food supply and agriculture of Mexico: Xilonen and Chicomecohuatl were maize-goddesses, and Centeotl, a god, also presided to some extent over the maize. The earth-goddess Toci or Teteoinnan was regarded as the progenitrix or mother of the gods. Sun-worship was extremely popular in Mexico, and the sun was regarded as the god par excellence. Moreover, he was the deity[Pg 300] of warriors to whom he granted victory in battle that they might supply him with food.


The Chinook Indians of the north-west coast of America possess a religious system of great interest to the student of myth, and we must deal with it at some length. The Chinooks were divided into two linguistic groups with numerous dialectic differences—Lower Chinook (comprising Chinook proper and the Clatsop), and Upper Chinook (comprising the rest of the tribe). The Lower Chinook dialects are now practically extinct; of persons of pure Chinook blood only about three hundred now exist. Upper Chinook is still spoken by considerable numbers, but the mixture of blood on the Indian Reservation, where they dwell, has been so great that the majority using the dialect are not really Chinooks.