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A STUDY IN THE NATIVE RELIGIONS
OF THE WESTERN CONTINENT.
DANIEL G. BRINTON, M.D.,
MEMBER OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY; THE AMERICAN ANTIQUARIAN
SOCIETY; THE NUMISMATIC AND ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY OF PHILA., ETC.; AUTHOR OF
"THE MYTHS OF THE NEW WORLD;" "THE RELIGIOUS SENTIMENT." ETC.
ELI K. PRICE, ESQ.,
PRESIDENT OF THE NUMISMATIC AND ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY OF PHILADELPHIA, WHOSE
ENLIGHTENED INTEREST HAS FOR MANY YEARS, AND IN MANY WAYS, FURTHERED THE
PROGRESS OF KNOWLEDGE, THIS VOLUME IS RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED BY THE
This little volume is a contribution to the comparative study of
religions. It is an endeavor to present in a critically correct light some
of the fundamental conceptions which are found in the native beliefs of
the tribes of America.
So little has heretofore been done in this field that it has yielded a
very scanty harvest for purposes of general study. It has not yet even
passed the stage where the distinction between myth and tradition has been
recognized. Nearly all historians continue to write about some of the
American hero-gods as if they had been chiefs of tribes at some
undetermined epoch, and the effort to trace the migrations and
affiliations of nations by similarities in such stories is of almost daily
occurrence. How baseless and misleading all such arguments must be, it is
one of my objects to set forth.
At the same time I have endeavored to be temperate in applying the
interpretations of mythologists. I am aware of the risk one runs in
looking at every legend as a light or storm myth. My guiding principle has
been that when the same, and that a very extraordinary, story is told by
several tribes wholly apart in language and location, then the
probabilities are enormous that it is not a legend but a myth, and must be
explained as such. It is a spontaneous production of the mind, not a
reminiscence of an historic event.
The importance of the study of myths has been abundantly shown of recent
years, and the methods of analyzing them have been established with
The time has long since passed, at least among thinking men, when the
religious legends of the lower races were looked upon as trivial fables,
or as the inventions of the Father of Lies. They are neither the one nor
the other. They express, in image and incident, the opinions of these
races on the mightiest topics of human thought, on the origin and destiny
of man, his motives for duty and his grounds of hope, and the source,
history and fate of all external nature. Certainly the sincere expressions
on these subjects of even humble members of the human race deserve our
most respectful heed, and it may be that we shall discover in their crude
or coarse narrations gleams of a mental light which their proud Aryan
brothers have been long in coming to, or have not yet reached.
The prejudice against all the lower faiths inspired by the claim of
Christianity to a monopoly of religious truth--a claim nowise set up by
its founder--has led to extreme injustice toward the so-called heathen
religions. Little effort has been made to distinguish between their good
and evil tendencies, or even to understand them. I do not know of a single
instance on this continent of a thorough and intelligent study of a native
religion made by a Protestant missionary.
So little real work has been done in American mythology that very diverse
opinions as to its interpretation prevail among writers. Too many of them
apply to it facile generalizations, such as "heliolatry," "animism,"
"ancestral worship," "primitive philosophizing," and think that such a
sesame will unloose all its mysteries. The result has been that while each
satisfies himself, he convinces no one else.
I have tried to avoid any such bias, and have sought to discover the
source of the myths I have selected, by close attention to two points:
first, that I should obtain the precise original form of the myth by a
rigid scrutiny of authorities; and, secondly, that I should bring to bear
upon it modern methods of mythological and linguistic analysis.
The first of these requirements has given me no small trouble. The sources
of American history not only differ vastly in merit, but many of them are
almost inaccessible. I still have by me a list of books of the first order
of importance for these studies, which I have not been able to find in any
public or private library in the United States.
I have been free in giving references for the statements in the text. The
growing custom among historians of omitting to do this must be deplored in
the interests of sound learning. It is better to risk the charge of
pedantry than to leave at fault those who wish to test an author's
accuracy or follow up the line of investigation he indicates.
On the other hand, I have exercised moderation in drawing comparisons with
Aryan, Semitic, Egyptian and other Old World mythologies. It would have
been easy to have noted apparent similarities to a much greater extent.
But I have preferred to leave this for those who write upon general
comparative mythology. Such parallelisms, to reach satisfactory results,
should be attempted only by those who have studied the Oriental religions
in their original sources, and thus are not to be deceived by superficial
The term "comparative mythology" reaches hardly far enough to cover all
that I have aimed at. The professional mythologist thinks he has completed
his task when he has traced a myth through its transformations in story
and language back to the natural phenomena of which it was the expression.
This external history is essential. But deeper than that lies the study of
the influence of the myth on the individual and national mind, on the
progress and destiny of those who believed it, in other words, its true
_religious_ import. I have endeavored, also, to take some account of this.
The usual statement is that tribes in the intellectual condition of those
I am dealing with rest their religion on a worship of external phenomena.
In contradiction to this, I advance various arguments to show that their
chief god was not identified with any objective natural process, but was
human in nature, benignant in character, loved rather than feared, and
that his worship carried with it the germs of the development of
benevolent emotions and sound ethical principles.
_Media, Pa., Oct., 1882._
Some Kind of Religion Found among all Men--Classifications of
Religions--The Purpose of Religions--Religions of Rite and of Creed--The
Myth Grows in the First of these--Intent and Meaning of the Myth.
Processes of Myth Building in America--Personification, Paronyms and
Figures--Abstract Expressions--Esoteric Teachings.
Outlines of the Fundamental American Myth--The White Culture-hero and the
Four Brothers--Interpretation of the Myth--Comparison with the Aryan
Hermes Myth--With the Aryo-Semitic Cadmus Myth--With Osirian Myths--The
Myth of the Virgin Mother--The Interpretation thus Supported.
THE HERO-GODS OF THE ALGONKINS AND IROQUOIS.
Sec.1. _The Algonkin Myth of Michabo._
The Myth of the Giant Rabbit--The Rabbit Creates the World--He Marries the
Muskrat--Becomes the All-Father--Derivation of Michabo--of Wajashk, the
Musk-rat--The Myth Explained--The Light-God as God of the East--The Four
Divine Brothers--Myth of the Huarochiris--The Day-Makers--Michabo's
Contests with His Father and Brother--Explanation of These--The Symbolic
Flint Stone--Michabo Destroys the Serpent King--Meaning of this
Myth--Relations of the Light-God and Wind-God--Michabo as God of Waters
and Fertility--Represented as a Bearded Man.
Sec.2. _The Iroquois Myth of Ioskeha._
The Creation of the Earth--The Miraculous Birth of Ioskeha--He Overcomes
his Brother Tawiscara--Creates and Teaches Mankind--Visits his People--His
Grandmother Ataensic--Ioskeha as Father of his Mother--Similar Conceptions
in Egyptian Myths--Derivation of Ioskeha and Ataensic--Ioskeha as
Tharonhiawakon, the Sky Supporter--His Brother Tawiscara or Tehotennhiaron
Identified--Similarity to Algonkin Myths.
THE HERO-GOD OP THE AZTEC TRIBES.
Sec.1. _The Two Antagonists._
The Contest of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca--Quetzalcoatl the
Light-God--Derivation of His Name--Titles of Tezcatlipoca--Identified with
Darkness, Night and Gloom.
Sec.2. _Quetzalcoatl the God._
Myth of the Four Brothers--The Four Suns and the Elemental Conflict--Names
of the Four Brothers.
Sec.3. _Quetzalcoatl the Hero of Tula._
Tula, the City of the Sun--Who were the Toltecs?--Tlapallan and Xalac--The
Birth of the Hero God--His Virgin Mother Chimalmatl--His Miraculous
Conception--Aztlan, the Land of Seven Caves, and Colhuacan, the Bended
Mount--The Maid Xochitl and the Rose Garden of the Gods--Quetzalcoatl as
the White and Bearded Stranger.
The Glory of the Lord of Tula--The Subtlety of the Sorcerer
Tezcatlipoca--The Magic Mirror and the Mystic Draught--The Myth
Explained--The Promise of Rejuvenation--The Toveyo and the Maiden--The
Juggleries of Tezcatlipoca--Departure of Quetzalcoatl from
Tula--Quetzalcoatl at Cholula--His Death or Departure--The Celestial Game
of Ball and Tiger Skin--Quetzalcoatl as the Planet Venus.
Sec.4. _Quetzalcoatl as Lord of the Winds._
The Lord of the Four Winds--His Symbols, the Wheel of the Winds, the
Pentagon and the Cross--Close Relation to the Gods of Rain and
Waters--Inventor of the Calendar--God of Fertility and
Conception--Recommends Sexual Austerity--Phallic Symbols--God of
Merchants--The Patron of Thieves--His Pictographic Representations.
Sec.5. _The Return of Quetzalcoatl._
His Expected Re-appearance--The Anxiety of Montezuma--His Address to
Cortes--The General Expectation--Explanation of his Predicted Return.
THE HERO-GODS OF THE MAYAS.
Civilization of the Mayas--Whence it Originated--Duplicate Traditions
Sec.1. _The Culture Hero Itzamna._
Itzamna as Ruler, Priest and Teacher--As Chief God and Creator of the
World--Las Casas' Supposed Christ Myth--The Four Bacabs--Itzamna as Lord
of the Winds and Rains--The Symbol of the Cross--As Lord of the Light and
Day--Derivation of his Various Names.
Sec.2. _The Culture Hero Kukulcan._
Kukulcan as Connected with the Calendar--Meaning of the Name--The Myth of
the Four Brothers--Kukulcan's Happy Rule and Miraculous
Disappearance--Relation to Quetzalcoatl--Aztec and Maya
Mythology--Kukulcan a Maya Divinity--The Expected Return of the
Hero-god--The Maya Prophecies--Their Explanation.
THE QQICHUA HERO-GOD VIRACOCHA.
Viracocha as the First Cause--His name Illa Ticci--Qquichua Prayers--Other
Names and Titles of Viracocha--His Worship a True Monotheism--The Myth of
the Four Brothers--Myth of the Twin Brothers.
Viracocha as Tunapa, He who Perfects--Various Incidents in His
Life--Relation to Manco Capac--He Disappears in the West.
Viracocha Rises from Lake Titicaca and Journeys to the West--Derivation of
His Name--He was Represented as White and Bearded--The Myth of Con and
Pachacamac--Contice Viracocha--Prophecies of the Peruvian Seers The White
Men Called Viracochas--Similarities to Aztec Myths.
THE EXTENSION AND INFLUENCE OP THE TYPICAL HERO-MYTH.
The Typical Myth found in many parts of the Continent--Difficulties in
Tracing it--Religious Evolution in America Similar to that in the Old
World--Failure of Christianity in the Red Race.
The Culture Myth of the Tarascos of Mechoacan--That of the Kiches of
Guatemala.--The Votan Myth of the Tzendals of Chiapas--A Fragment of a
Mixe Myth--The Hero-God of the Muyscas of New Granada--Of the
Tupi-Guaranay Stem of Paraguay and Brazil--Myths of the Dene of British
Sun Worship in America--Germs of Progress in American Religions--Relation
of Religion and Morality--The Light-God A Moral and Beneficent
Creation--His Worship was Elevating--Moral Condition of Native Societies
before the Conquest--Progress in the Definition of the Idea of God in
Peru, Mexico and Yucatan--Erroneous Statements about the Morals of the
Natives--Evolution of their Ethical Principles.
SOME KIND OF RELIGION FOUND AMONG ALL MEN--CLASSIFICATIONS OF
RELIGIONS--THE PURPOSE OF RELIGIONS--RELIGIONS OF RITE AND OF CREED--THE
MYTH GROWS IN THE FIRST OF THESE--INTENT AND MEANING OF THE MYTH.
PROCESSES OF MYTH-BUILDING IN AMERICA--PERSONIFICATION. PARONYMS AND
FIGURES--ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONS. ESOTERIC TEACHINGS.
OUTLINES OF THE FUNDAMENTAL AMERICAN MYTH--THE WHITE CULTURE-HERO AND THE
FOUR BROTHERS--INTERPRETATION OF THE MYTH--COMPARISON WITH THE ARYAN
HERMES MYTH--WITH THE ARYO-SEMITIC CADMUS MYTH--WITH OSIRIAN MYTHS--THE
MYTH OF THE VIRGIN MOTHER--THE INTERPRETATION THUS SUPPORTED.
The time was, and that not so very long ago, when it was contended by some
that there are tribes of men without any sort of religion; nowadays the
effort is to show that the feeling which prompts to it is common, even
This change of opinion has come about partly through an extension of the
definition of religion. It is now held to mean any kind of belief in
spiritual or extra-natural agencies. Some learned men say that we had
better drop the word "religion," lest we be misunderstood. They would
rather use "daimonism," or "supernaturalism," or other such new term; but
none of these seems to me so wide and so exactly significant of what I
mean as "religion."
All now agree that in this very broad sense some kind of religion exists
in every human community.
[Footnote 1: I suppose I am not going too far in saying "all agree;" for I
think that the latest study of this subject, by Gustav Roskoff, disposes
of Sir John Lubbock's doubts, as well as the crude statements of the
author of _Kraft und Stoff_, and such like compilations. Gustav Roskoff,
_Das Religionswesen der Rohesten Naturvoelker_, Leipzig, 1880.]
The attempt has often been made to classify these various faiths under
some few general headings. The scheme of Auguste Comte still has
supporters. He taught that man begins with fetichism, advances to
polytheism, and at last rises to monotheism. More in vogue at present is
the theory that the simplest and lowest form of religion is individual;
above it are the national religions; and at the summit the universal or
Comte's scheme has not borne examination. It is artificial and sterile.
Look at Christianity. It is the highest of all religions, but it is not
monotheism. Look at Buddhism. In its pure form it is not even theism. The
second classification is more fruitful for historical purposes.
The psychologist, however, inquires as to the essence, the real purpose of
religions. This has been differently defined by the two great schools of
All religions, says the idealist, are the efforts, poor or noble,
conscious or blind, to develop the Idea of God in the soul of man.
No, replies the rationalist, it is simply the effort of the human mind to
frame a Theory of Things; at first, religion is an early system of natural
philosophy; later it becomes moral philosophy. Explain the Universe by
physical laws, point out that the origin and aim of ethics are the
relations of men, and we shall have no more religions, nor need any.
The first answer is too intangible, the second too narrow. The rude savage
does not philosophize on phenomena; the enlightened student sees in them
but interacting forces: yet both may be profoundly religious. Nor can
morality be accepted as a criterion of religions. The bloody scenes in the
Mexican teocalli were merciful compared with those in the torture rooms of
the Inquisition. Yet the religion of Jesus was far above that of
What I think is the essence, the principle of vitality, in religion, and
in all religions, is _their supposed control over the destiny of the
individual_, his weal or woe, his good or bad hap, here or hereafter, as
it may be. Rooted infinitely deep in the sense of personality, religion
was recognized at the beginning, it will be recognized at the end, as the
one indestructible ally in the struggle for individual existence. At
heart, all prayers are for preservation, the burden of all litanies is a
begging for Life.
This end, these benefits, have been sought by the cults of the world
through one of two theories.
The one, that which characterizes the earliest and the crudest religions,
teaches that man escapes dangers and secures safety by the performance or
avoidance of certain actions. He may credit this or that myth, he may hold
to one or many gods; this is unimportant; but he must not fail in the
penance or the sacred dance, he must not touch that which is _taboo_, or
he is in peril. The life of these cults is the Deed, their expression is
Higher religions discern the inefficacy of the mere Act. They rest their
claim on Belief. They establish dogmas, the mental acceptance of which is
the one thing needful. In them mythology passes into theology; the act is
measured by its motive, the formula by the faith back of it. Their life is
The Myth finds vigorous and congenial growth only in the first of these
forms. There alone the imagination of the votary is free, there alone it
is not fettered by a symbol already defined.
To the student of religions the interest of the Myth is not that of an
infantile attempt to philosophize, but as it illustrates the intimate and
immediate relations which the religion in which it grew bore to the
individual life. Thus examined, it reveals the inevitable destinies of men
and of nations as bound up with their forms of worship.
These general considerations appear to me to be needed for the proper
understanding of the study I am about to make. It concerns itself with
some of the religions which were developed on the American continent
before its discovery. My object is to present from them a series of myths
curiously similar in features, and to see if one simple and general
explanation of them can be found.
The processes of myth-building among American tribes were much the same as
elsewhere. These are now too generally familiar to need specification
here, beyond a few which I have found particularly noticeable.
At the foundation of all myths lies the mental process of
_personification_, which finds expression in the rhetorical figure of
_prosopopeia_. The definition of this, however, must be extended from the
mere representation of inanimate things as animate, to include also the
representation of irrational beings as rational, as in the "animal myths,"
a most common form of religious story among primitive people.
Some languages favor these forms of personification much more than others,
and most of the American languages do so in a marked manner, by the broad
grammatical distinctions they draw between animate and inanimate objects,
which distinctions must invariably be observed. They cannot say "the boat
moves" without specifying whether the boat is an animate object or not, or
whether it is to be considered animate, for rhetorical purposes, at the
time of speaking.
The sounds of words have aided greatly in myth building. Names and words
which are somewhat alike in sound, _paronyms_, as they are called by
grammarians, may be taken or mistaken one for the other. Again, many myths
spring from _homonymy_, that is, the sameness in sound of words with
difference in signification. Thus _coatl_, in the Aztec tongue, is a word
frequently appearing in the names of divinities. It has three entirely
different meanings, to wit, a serpent, a guest and twins. Now, whichever
one of these was originally meant, it would be quite certain to be
misunderstood, more or less, by later generations, and myths would arise
to explain the several possible interpretations of the word--as, in fact,
we find was the case.
Closely allied to this is what has been called _otosis_. This is the
substitution of a familiar word for an archaic or foreign one of similar
sound but wholly diverse meaning. This is a very common occurrence and
easily leads to myth making. For example, there is a cave, near
Chattanooga, which has the Cherokee name Nik-a-jak. This the white
settlers have transformed into Nigger Jack, and are prepared with a
narrative of some runaway slave to explain the cognomen. It may also occur
in the same language. In an Algonkin dialect _missi wabu_ means "the great
light of the dawn;" and a common large rabbit was called _missabo_; at
some period the precise meaning of the former words was lost, and a
variety of interesting myths of the daybreak were transferred to a
supposed huge rabbit! Rarely does there occur a more striking example of
how the deteriorations of language affect mythology.
_Aztlan_, the mythical land whence the Aztec speaking tribes were said to
have come, and from which they derived their name, means "the place of
whiteness;" but the word was similar to _Aztatlan_, which would mean "the
place of herons," some spot where these birds would love to congregate,
from _aztatl_, the heron, and in after ages, this latter, as the plainer
and more concrete signification, came to prevail, and was adopted by the
_Polyonomy_ is another procedure often seen in these myths. A divinity has
several or many titles; one or another of these becomes prominent, and at
last obscures in a particular myth or locality the original personality of
the hero of the tale. In America this is most obvious in Peru.
Akin to this is what Prof. Max Mueller has termed _henotheism_. In this
mental process one god or one form of a god is exalted beyond all others,
and even addressed as the one, only, absolute and supreme deity. Such
expressions are not to be construed literally as evidences of a
monotheism, but simply that at that particular time the worshiper's mind
was so filled with the power and majesty of the divinity to whom he
appealed, that he applied to him these superlatives, very much as he would
to a great ruler. The next day he might apply them to another deity,
without any hypocrisy or sense of logical contradiction. Instances of this
are common in the Aztec prayers which have been preserved.
One difficulty encountered in Aryan mythology is extremely rare in
America, and that is, the adoption of foreign names. A proper name without
a definite concrete significance in the tongue of the people who used it
is almost unexampled in the red race. A word without a meaning was
something quite foreign to their mode of thought. One of our most eminent
students has justly said: "Every Indian synthesis--names of persons and
places not excepted--must preserve the consciousness of its roots, and
must not only have a meaning, but be so framed as to convey that meaning
with precision, to all who speak the language to which it belongs." Hence,
the names of their divinities can nearly always be interpreted, though for
the reasons above given the most obvious and current interpretation is not
in every case the correct one.
[Footnote 1: J. Hammond Trumbull, _On the Composition of Indian
Geographical Names_, p. 3 (Hartford, 1870).]
As foreign names were not adopted, so the mythology of one tribe very
rarely influenced that of another. As a rule, all the religions were
tribal or national, and their votaries had no desire to extend them. There
was little of the proselytizing spirit among the red race. Some exceptions
can be pointed out to this statement, in the Aztec and Peruvian
monarchies. Some borrowing seems to have been done either by or from the
Mayas; and the hero-myth of the Iroquois has so many of the lineaments of
that of the Algonkins that it is difficult to believe that it was wholly
independent of it. But, on the whole, the identities often found in
American myths are more justly attributable to a similarity of
surroundings and impressions than to any other cause.
The diversity and intricacy of American mythology have been greatly
fostered by the delight the more developed nations took in rhetorical
figures, in metaphor and simile, and in expressions of amplification and
hyperbole. Those who imagine that there was a poverty of resources in
these languages, or that their concrete form hemmed in the mind from the
study of the abstract, speak without knowledge. One has but to look at the
inexhaustible synonymy of the Aztec, as it is set forth by Olmos or
Sahagun, or at its power to render correctly the refinements of scholastic
theology, to see how wide of the fact is any such opinion. And what is
true of the Aztec, is not less so of the Qquichua and other tongues.
I will give an example, where the English language itself falls short of
the nicety of the Qquichua in handling a metaphysical tenet. _Cay_ in
Qquichua expresses the real being of things, the _essentia_; as, _runap
caynin_, the being of the human race, humanity in the abstract; but to
convey the idea of actual being, the _existentia_ as united to the
_essentia_, we must add the prefix _cascan_, and thus have
_runap-cascan-caynin_, which strictly means "the essence of being in
general, as existent in humanity." I doubt if the dialect of German
metaphysics itself, after all its elaboration, could produce in equal
compass a term for this conception. In Qquichua, moreover, there is
nothing strained and nothing foreign in this example; it is perfectly
pure, and in thorough accord with the genius of the tongue.
[Footnote 1: "El ser existente de hombre, que es el modo de estar el
primer ser que es la essentia que en Dios y los Angeles y el hombre es
modo personal." Diego Gonzalez Holguin, _Vocabvlario de la Lengva Qqichua,
o del Inca; sub voce, Cay_. (Ciudad de los Reyes, 1608.)]
I take some pains to impress this fact, for it is an important one in
estimating the religious ideas of the race. We must not think we have
grounds for skepticism if we occasionally come across some that astonish
us by their subtlety. Such are quite in keeping with the psychology and
languages of the race we are studying.
Yet, throughout America, as in most other parts of the world, the teaching
of religious tenets was twofold, the one popular, the other for the
initiated, an esoteric and an exoteric doctrine. A difference in dialect
was assiduously cultivated, a sort of "sacred language" being employed to
conceal while it conveyed the mysteries of faith. Some linguists think
that these dialects are archaic forms of the language, the memory of which
was retained in ceremonial observances; others maintain that they were
simply affectations of expression, and form a sort of slang, based on the
every day language, and current among the initiated. I am inclined to the
latter as the correct opinion, in many cases.
Whichever it was, such a sacred dialect is found in almost all tribes.
There are fragments of it from the cultivated races of Mexico, Yucatan and
Peru; and at the other end of the scale we may instance the Guaymis, of
Darien, naked savages, but whose "chiefs of the law," we are told, taught
"the doctrines of their religion in a peculiar idiom, invented for the
purpose, and very different from the common language."
[Footnote 1: Franco, _Noticia de los Indios Guaymies y de sus Costumbres_,
p. 20, in Pinart, _Coleccion de Linguistica y Etnografia Americana_. Tom.
This becomes an added difficulty in the analysis of myths, as not only
were the names of the divinities and of localities expressed in terms in
the highest degree metaphorical, but they were at times obscured by an
affected pronunciation, devised to conceal their exact derivation.
The native tribes of this Continent had many myths, and among them there
was one which was so prominent, and recurred with such strangely similar
features in localities widely asunder, that it has for years attracted my
attention, and I have been led to present it as it occurs among several
nations far apart, both geographically and in point of culture. This myth
is that of the national hero, their mythical civilizer and teacher of the
tribe, who, at the same time, was often identified with the supreme deity
and the creator of the world. It is the fundamental myth of a very large
number of American tribes, and on its recognition and interpretation
depends the correct understanding of most of their mythology and religious
The outlines of this legend are to the effect that in some exceedingly
remote time this divinity took an active part in creating the world and in
fitting it to be the abode of man, and may himself have formed or called
forth the race. At any rate, his interest in its advancement was such that
he personally appeared among the ancestors of the nation, and taught them
the useful arts, gave them the maize or other food plants, initiated them
into the mysteries of their religious rites, framed the laws which
governed their social relations, and having thus started them on the road
to self development, he left them, not suffering death, but disappearing
in some way from their view. Hence it was nigh universally expected that
at some time he would return.
The circumstances attending the birth of these hero-gods have great
similarity. As a rule, each is a twin or one of four brothers born at one
birth; very generally at the cost of their mother's life, who is a virgin,
or at least had never been impregnated by mortal man. The hero is apt to
come into conflict with his brother, or one of his brothers, and the long
and desperate struggle resulting, which often involved the universe in
repeated destructions, constitutes one of the leading topics of the
myth-makers. The duel is not generally--not at all, I believe, when we can
get at the genuine native form of the myth--between a morally good and an
evil spirit, though, undoubtedly, the one is more friendly and favorable
to the welfare of man than the other.
The better of the two, the true hero-god, is in the end triumphant, though
the national temperament represented this variously. At any rate, his
people are not deserted by him, and though absent, and perhaps for a while
driven away by his potent adversary, he is sure to come back some time or
The place of his birth is nearly always located in the East; from that
quarter he first came when he appeared as a man among men; toward that
point he returned when he disappeared; and there he still lives, awaiting
the appointed time for his reappearance.
Whenever the personal appearance of this hero-god is described, it is,
strangely enough, represented to be that of one of the white race, a man
of fair complexion, with long, flowing beard, with abundant hair, and
clothed in ample and loose robes. This extraordinary fact naturally
suggests the gravest suspicion that these stories were made up after the
whites had reached the American shores, and nearly all historians have
summarily rejected their authenticity, on this account. But a most careful
scrutiny of their sources positively refutes this opinion. There is
irrefragable evidence that these myths and this ideal of the hero-god,
were intimately known and widely current in America long before any one of
its millions of inhabitants had ever seen a white man. Nor is there any
difficulty in explaining this, when we divest these figures of the
fanciful garbs in which they have been clothed by the religious
imagination, and recognize what are the phenomena on which they are based,
and the physical processes whose histories they embody. To show this I
will offer, in the most concise terms, my interpretation of their main
The most important of all things to life is _Light_. This the primitive
savage felt, and, personifying it, he made Light his chief god. The
beginning of the day served, by analogy, for the beginning of the world.
Light comes before the sun, brings it forth, creates it, as it were. Hence
the Light-God is not the Sun-God, but his Antecedent and Creator.
The light appears in the East, and thus defines that cardinal point, and
by it the others are located. These points, as indispensable guides to the
wandering hordes, became, from earliest times, personified as important
deities, and were identified with the winds that blew from them, as wind
and rain gods. This explains the four brothers, who were nothing else than
the four cardinal points, and their mother, who dies in producing them, is
the eastern light, which is soon lost in the growing day. The East, as
their leader, was also the supposed ruler of the winds, and thus god of
the air and rain. As more immediately connected with the advent and
departure of light, the East and West are twins, the one of which sends
forth the glorious day-orb, which the other lies in wait to conquer. Yet
the light-god is not slain. The sun shall rise again in undiminished
glory, and he lives, though absent.
By sight and light we see and learn. Nothing, therefore, is more natural
than to attribute to the light-god the early progress in the arts of
domestic and social life. Thus light came to be personified as the
embodiment of culture and knowledge, of wisdom, and of the peace and
prosperity which are necessary for the growth of learning.
The fair complexion of these heroes is nothing but a reference to the
white light of the dawn. Their ample hair and beard are the rays of the
sun that flow from his radiant visage. Their loose and large robes typify
the enfolding of the firmament by the light and the winds.
This interpretation is nowise strained, but is simply that which, in Aryan
mythology, is now universally accepted for similar mythological creations.
Thus, in the Greek Phoebus and Perseus, in the Teutonic Lif, and in the
Norse Baldur, we have also beneficent hero-gods, distinguished by their
fair complexion and ample golden locks. "Amongst the dark as well as
amongst the fair races, amongst those who are marked by black hair and
dark eyes, they exhibit the same unfailing type of blue-eyed heroes whose
golden locks flow over their shoulders, and whose faces gleam as with the
light of the new risen sun."
[Footnote 1: Sir George W. Cox, _An Introduction to the Science of
Comparative Mythology and Folk-Lore_, p. 17.]
Everywhere, too, the history of these heroes is that of a struggle against
some potent enemy, some dark demon or dragon, but as often against some
member of their own household, a brother or a father.
The identification of the Light-God with the deity of the winds is also
seen in Aryan mythology. Hermes, to the Greek, was the inventor of the
alphabet, music, the cultivation of the olive, weights and measures, and
such humane arts. He was also the messenger of the gods, in other words,
the breezes, the winds, the air in motion. His name Hermes, Hermeias, is
but a transliteration of the Sanscrit Sarameyas, under which he appears in
the Vedic songs, as the son of Sarama, the Dawn. Even his character as the
master thief and patron saint of the light-fingered gentry, drawn from the
way the winds and breezes penetrate every crack and cranny of the house,
is absolutely repeated in the Mexican hero-god Quetzalcoatl, who was also
the patron of thieves. I might carry the comparison yet further, for as
Sarameyas is derived from the root _sar_, to creep, whence _serpo_,
serpent, the creeper, so the name Quetzalcoatl can be accurately
translated, "the wonderful serpent." In name, history and functions the
parallelism is maintained throughout.
Or we can find another familiar myth, partly Aryan, partly Semitic, where
many of the same outlines present themselves. The Argive Thebans
attributed the founding of their city and state to Cadmus. He collected
their ancestors into a community, gave them laws, invented the alphabet of
sixteen letters, taught them the art of smelting metals, established
oracles, and introduced the Dyonisiac worship, or that of the reproductive
principle. He subsequently left them and lived for a time with other
nations, and at last did not die, but was changed into a dragon and
carried by Zeus to Elysion.
The birthplace of this culture hero was somewhere far to the eastward of
Greece, somewhere in "the purple land" (Phoenicia); his mother was "the
far gleaming one" (Telephassa); he was one of four children, and his
sister was Europe, the Dawn, who was seized and carried westward by Zeus,
in the shape of a white bull. Cadmus seeks to recover her, and sets out,
following the westward course of the sun. "There can be no rest until the
lost one is found again. The sun must journey westward until he sees again
the beautiful tints which greeted his eyes in the morning." Therefore
Cadmus leaves the purple land to pursue his quest. It is one of toil and
struggle. He has to fight the dragon offspring of Ares and the bands of
armed men who spring from the dragon's teeth which were sown, that is, the
clouds and gloom of the overcast sky. He conquers, and is rewarded, but
does not recover his sister.
[Footnote 1: Sir George W. Cox, _Ibid._, p. 76.]
When we find that the name Cadmus is simply the Semitic word _kedem_, the
east, and notice all this mythical entourage, we see that this legend is
but a lightly veiled account of the local source and progress of the light
of day, and of the advantages men derive from it. Cadmus brings the
letters of the alphabet from the east to Greece, for the same reason that
in ancient Maya myth Itzamna, "son of the mother of the morning," brought
the hieroglyphs of the Maya script also from the east to Yucatan--because
both represent the light by which we see and learn.
Egyptian mythology offers quite as many analogies to support this
interpretation of American myths as do the Aryan god-stories.
The heavenly light impregnates the virgin from whom is born the sun-god,
whose life is a long contest with his twin brother. The latter wins, but
his victory is transient, for the light, though conquered and banished by
the darkness, cannot be slain, and is sure to return with the dawn, to the
great joy of the sons of men. This story the Egyptians delighted to repeat
under numberless disguises. The groundwork and meaning are the same,
whether the actors are Osiris, Isis and Set, Ptah, Hapi and the Virgin
Cow, or the many other actors of this drama. There, too, among a brown
race of men, the light-god was deemed to be not of their own hue, but
"light colored, white or yellow," of comely countenance, bright eyes and
golden hair. Again, he is the one who invented the calendar, taught the
arts, established the rituals, revealed the medical virtues of plants,
recommended peace, and again was identified as one of the brothers of the
[Footnote 1: See Dr. C.P. Tiele, _History of the Egyptian Religion_, pp.
93, 95, 99, et al.]
The story of the virgin-mother points, in America as it did in the old
world, to the notion of the dawn bringing forth the sun. It was one of the
commonest myths in both continents, and in a period of human thought when
miracles were supposed to be part of the order of things had in it nothing
difficult of credence. The Peruvians, for instance, had large
establishments where were kept in rigid seclusion the "virgins of the
sun." Did one of these violate her vow of chastity, she and her fellow
criminal were at once put to death; but did she claim that the child she
bore was of divine parentage, and the contrary could not be shown, then
she was feted as a queen, and the product of her womb was classed among
princes, as a son of the sun. So, in the inscription at Thebes, in the
temple of the virgin goddess Mat, we read where she says of herself: "My
garment no man has lifted up; the fruit that I have borne was begotten of
[Footnote 1: "[Greek: Ton emon chitona oudeis apechaluphen on ego charpon
etechan, aelios egeneto.]" Proclus, quoted by Tiele, ubi supra, p. 204,
I do not venture too much in saying that it were easy to parallel every
event in these American hero-myths, every phase of character of the
personages they represent, with others drawn from Aryan and Egyptian
legends long familiar to students, and which now are fully recognized as
having in them nothing of the substance of history, but as pure creations
of the religious imagination working on the processes of nature brought
into relation to the hopes and fears of men.
If this is so, is it not time that we dismiss, once for all, these
American myths from the domain of historical traditions? Why should we try
to make a king of Itzamna, an enlightened ruler of Quetzalcoatl, a
cultured nation of the Toltecs, when the proof is of the strongest, that
every one of these is an absolutely baseless fiction of mythology? Let it
be understood, hereafter, that whoever uses these names in an historical
sense betrays an ignorance of the subject he handles, which, were it in
the better known field of Aryan or Egyptian lore, would at once convict
him of not meriting the name of scholar.
In European history the day has passed when it was allowable to construct
primitive chronicles out of fairy tales and nature myths. The science of
comparative mythology has assigned to these venerable stories a different,
though not less noble, interpretation. How much longer must we wait to see
the same canons of criticism applied to the products of the religious
fancy of the red race?
Furthermore, if the myths of the American nations are shown to be capable
of a consistent interpretation by the principles of comparative mythology,
let it be recognized that they are neither to be discarded because they
resemble some familiar to their European conquerors, nor does that
similarity mean that they are historically derived, the one from the
other. Each is an independent growth, but as each is the reflex in a
common psychical nature of the same phenomena, the same forms of
expression were adopted to convey them.
THE HERO-GODS OF THE ALGONKINS AND IROQUOIS.
Sec.1. _The Algonkin Myth of Michabo._
THE MYTH OF THE GIANT RABBIT--THE RABBIT CREATES THE WORLD--HE MARRIES THE
MUSKRAT--BECOMES THE ALL-FATHER--DERIVATION OF MICHABO--OF WAJASHK, THE
MUSKRAT--THE MYTH EXPLAINED--THE LIGHT-GOD AS GOD OF THE EAST--THE FOUR
DIVINE BROTHERS--MYTH OF THE HUAROCHIRIS--THE DAY-MAKERS--MICHABO'S
CONTESTS WITH HIS FATHER AND BROTHER--EXPLANATION OF THESE--THE SYMBOLIC
FLINT STONE--MICHABO DESTROYS THE SERPENT KING--MEANING OF THIS
MYTH--RELATIONS OF THE LIGHT-GOD AND WIND-GOD--MICHABO AS GOD OF WATERS
AND FERTILITY--REPRESENTED AS A BEARDED MAN.
Sec.2. _The Iroquois Myth of Ioskeha._
THE CREATION OF THE EARTH--THE MIRACULOUS BIRTH OF IOSKEHA--HE OVERCOMES
HIS BROTHER, TAWISCARA--CREATES AND TEACHES MANKIND--VISITS HIS
PEOPLE--HIS GRANDMOTHER, ATAENSIC--IOSKEHA AS FATHER OF HIS
MOTHER--SIMILAR CONCEPTIONS IN EGYPTIAN MYTHS--DERIVATION OF IOSKEHA AND
ATAENSIC--IOSKEHA AS THARONHIAWAKON, THE SKY SUPPORTER--HIS BROTHER
TAWISCARA OR TEHOTENNHIARON IDENTIFIED--SIMILARITY TO ALGONKIN MYTHS.
Nearly all that vast area which lies between Hudson Bay and the Savannah
river, and the Mississippi river and the Atlantic coast, was peopled at
the epoch of the discovery by the members of two linguistic families--the
Algonkins and the Iroquois. They were on about the same plane of culture,
but differed much in temperament and radically in language. Yet their
religious notions were not dissimilar.
Sec.1. _The Algonkin Myth of Michabo._
Among all the Algonkin tribes whose myths have been preserved we find much
is said about a certain Giant Rabbit, to whom all sorts of powers were
attributed. He was the master of all animals; he was the teacher who first
instructed men in the arts of fishing and hunting; he imparted to the
Algonkins the mysteries of their religious rites; he taught them picture
writing and the interpretation of dreams; nay, far more than that, he was
the original ancestor, not only of their nation, but of the whole race of
man, and, in fact, was none other than the primal Creator himself, who
fashioned the earth and gave life to all that thereon is.
Hearing all this said about such an ignoble and weak animal as the rabbit,
no wonder that the early missionaries and travelers spoke of such fables
with undisguised contempt, and never mentioned them without excuses for
putting on record trivialities so utter.
Yet it appears to me that under these seemingly weak stories lay a
profound truth, the appreciation of which was lost in great measure to the
natives themselves, but which can be shown to have been in its origin a
noble myth, setting forth in not unworthy images the ceaseless and mighty
rhythm of nature in the alternations of day and night, summer and winter,
storm and sunshine.
I shall quote a few of these stories as told by early authorities, not
adding anything to relieve their crude simplicity, and then I will see
whether, when submitted to the test of linguistic analysis, this
unpromising ore does not yield the pure gold of genuine mythology.
The beginning of things, according to the Ottawas and other northern
Algonkins, was at a period when boundless waters covered the face of the
earth. On this infinite ocean floated a raft, upon which were many species
of animals, the captain and chief of whom was Michabo, the Giant Rabbit.
They ardently desired land on which to live, so this mighty rabbit ordered
the beaver to dive and bring him up ever so little a piece of mud. The
beaver obeyed, and remained down long, even so that he came up utterly
exhausted, but reported that he had not reached bottom. Then the Rabbit
sent down the otter, but he also returned nearly dead and without success.
Great was the disappointment of the company on the raft, for what better
divers had they than the beaver and the otter?
In the midst of their distress the (female) muskrat came forward and
announced her willingness to make the attempt. Her proposal was received
with derision, but as poor help is better than none in an emergency, the
Rabbit gave her permission, and down she dived. She too remained long,
very long, a whole day and night, and they gave her up for lost. But at
length she floated to the surface, unconscious, her belly up, as if dead.
They hastily hauled her on the raft and examined her paws one by one. In
the last one of the four they found a small speck of mud. Victory! That
was all that was needed. The muskrat was soon restored, and the Giant
Rabbit, exerting his creative power, moulded the little fragment of soil,
and as he moulded it, it grew and grew, into an island, into a mountain,
into a country, into this great earth that we all dwell upon. As it grew
the Rabbit walked round and round it, to see how big it was; and the story
added that he is not yet satisfied; still he continues his journey and his
labor, walking forever around and around the earth and ever increasing it
more and more.
The animals on the raft soon found homes on the new earth. But it had yet
to be covered with forests, and men were not born. The Giant Rabbit formed
the trees by shooting his arrows into the soil, which became tree trunks,
and, transfixing them with other arrows, these became branches; and as for
men, some said he formed them from the dead bodies of certain animals,
which in time became the "totems" of the Algonkin tribes; but another and
probably an older and truer story was that he married the muskrat which
had been of such service to him, and from this union were born the
ancestors of the various races of mankind which people the earth.
Nor did he neglect the children he had thus brought into the world of his
creation. Having closely studied how the spider spreads her web to catch
flies, he invented the art of knitting nets for fish, and taught it to his
descendants; the pieces of native copper found along the shores of Lake
Superior he took from his treasure house inside the earth, where he
sometimes lives. It is he who is the Master of Life, and if he appears in
a dream to a person in danger, it is a certain sign of a lucky escape. He
confers fortune in the chase, and therefore the hunters invoke him, and
offer him tobacco and other dainties, placing them in the clefts of rocks
or on isolated boulders. Though called the Giant Rabbit, he is always
referred to as a man, a giant or demigod perhaps, but distinctly as of
human nature, the mighty father or elder brother of the race.
[Footnote 1: The writers from whom I have taken this myth are Nicolas
Perrot, _Memoire sur les Meurs, Coustumes et Relligion des Sauvages de
l'Amerique Septentrionale_, written by an intelligent layman who lived
among the natives from 1665 to 1699; and the various _Relations des
Jesuites_, especially for the years 1667 and 1670.]
Such is the national myth of creation of the Algonkin tribes, as it has
been handed down to us in fragments by those who first heard it. Has it
any meaning? Is it more than the puerile fable of savages?
Let us see whether some of those unconscious tricks of speech to which I
referred in the introductory chapter have not disfigured a true nature
myth. Perhaps those common processes of language, personification and
otosis, duly taken into account, will enable us to restore this narrative
to its original sense.
In the Algonkin tongue the word for Giant Rabbit is _Missabos_, compounded
from _mitchi_ or _missi_, great, large, and _wabos_, a rabbit. But there
is a whole class of related words, referring to widely different
perceptions, which sound very much like _wabos_. They are from a general
root _wab_, which goes to form such words of related signification as
_wabi_, he sees, _waban_, the east, the Orient, _wabish_, white, _bidaban_
(_bid-waban_), the dawn, _waban_, daylight, _wasseia_, the light, and many
others. Here is where we are to look for the real meaning of the name
_Missabos_. It originally meant the Great Light, the Mighty Seer, the
Orient, the Dawn--which you please, as all distinctly refer to the one
original idea, the Bringer of Light and Sight, of knowledge and life. In
time this meaning became obscured, and the idea of the rabbit, whose name
was drawn probably from the same root, as in the northern winters its fur
becomes white, was substituted, and so the myth of light degenerated into
an animal fable.
I believe that a similar analysis will explain the part which the muskrat
plays in the story. She it is who brings up the speck of mud from the
bottom of the primal ocean, and from this speck the world is formed by him
whom we now see was the Lord of the Light and the Day, and subsequently
she becomes the mother of his sons. The word for muskrat in Algonkin is
_wajashk_, the first letter of which often suffers elision, as in _nin
nod-ajashkwe_, I hunt muskrats. But this is almost the word for mud, wet
earth, soil, _ajishki_. There is no reasonable doubt but that here again
otosis and personification came in and gave the form and name of an animal
to the original simple statement.
That statement was that from wet mud dried by the sunlight, the solid
earth was formed; and again, that this damp soil was warmed and fertilized
by the sunlight, so that from it sprang organic life, even man himself,
who in so many mythologies is "the earth born," _homo ab humo, homo
[Footnote 1: Mr. J. Hammond Trumbull has pointed out that in Algonkin the
words for father, _osh_, mother, _okas_, and earth, _ohke_ (Narraganset
dialect), can all be derived, according to the regular rules of Algonkin
grammar, from the same verbal root, signifying "to come out of, or from."
(Note to Roger Williams' _Key into the Language of America_, p. 56). Thus
the earth was, in their language, the parent of the race, and what more
natural than that it should become so in the myth also?]
This, then, is the interpretation I have to offer of the cosmogonical myth
of the Algonkins. Does some one object that it is too refined for those
rude savages, or that it smacks too much of reminiscences of old-world
teachings? My answer is that neither the early travelers who wrote it
down, nor probably the natives who told them, understood its meaning, and
that not until it is here approached by modern methods of analysis, has it
ever been explained. Therefore it is impossible to assign to it other than
an indigenous and spontaneous origin in some remote period of Algonkin
After the darkness of the night, man first learns his whereabouts by the
light kindling in the Orient; wandering, as did the primitive man, through
pathless forests, without a guide, the East became to him the first and
most important of the fixed points in space; by it were located the West,
the North, the South; from it spread the welcome dawn; in it was born the
glorious sun; it was full of promise and of instruction; hence it became
to him the home of the gods of life and light and wisdom.
As the four cardinal points are determined by fixed physical relations,
common to man everywhere, and are closely associated with his daily
motions and well being, they became prominent figures in almost all early
myths, and were personified as divinities. The winds were classified as
coming from them, and in many tongues the names of the cardinal points are
the same as those of the winds that blow from them. The East, however,
has, in regard to the others, a pre-eminence, for it is not merely the
home of the east wind, but of the light and the dawn as well. Hence it
attained a marked preponderance in the myths; it was either the greatest,
wisest and oldest of the four brothers, who, by personification,
represented the cardinal points and the four winds, or else the Light-God
was separated from the quadruplet and appears as a fifth personage
governing the other four, and being, in fact, the supreme ruler of both
the spiritual and human worlds.
Such was the mental processes which took place in the Algonkin mind, and
gave rise to two cycles of myths, the one representing Wabun or Michabo as
one of four brothers, whose names are those of the cardinal points, the
second placing him above them all.
The four brothers are prominent characters in Algonkin legend, and we
shall find that they recur with extraordinary frequency in the mythology
of all American nations. Indeed, I could easily point them out also in the
early religious conceptions of Egypt and India, Greece and China, and many
other old-world lands, but I leave these comparisons to those who wish to
treat of the principles of general mythology.
According to the most generally received legend these four brothers were
quadruplets--born at one birth--and their mother died in bringing them
into life. Their names are given differently by the various tribes, but
are usually identical with the four points of the compass, or something
relating to them. Wabun the East, Kabun the West, Kabibonokka the North,
and Shawano the South, are, in the ordinary language of the interpreters,
the names applied to them. Wabun was the chief and leader, and assigned to
his brothers their various duties, especially to blow the winds.
These were the primitive and chief divinities of the Algonkin race in all
parts of the territory they inhabited. When, as early as 1610, Captain
Argoll visited the tribes who then possessed the banks of the river
Potomac, and inquired concerning their religion, they replied, "We have
five gods in all; our chief god often appears to us in the form of a
mighty great hare; the other four have no visible shape, but are indeed
the four winds, which keep the four corners of the earth."
[Footnote 1: William Strachey, _Historie of Travaile into Virginia_, p.
Here we see that Wabun, the East, was distinguished from Michabo
(_missi-wabun_), and by a natural and transparent process, the eastern
light being separated from the eastern wind, the original number four was
increased to five. Precisely the same differentiation occurred, as I shall
show, in Mexico, in the case of Quetzalcoatl, as shown in his _Yoel_, or
Wheel of the Winds, which was his sacred pentagram.
Or I will further illustrate this development by a myth of the Huarochiri
Indians, of the coast of Peru. They related that in the beginning of
things there were five eggs on the mountain Condorcoto. In due course of
time these eggs opened and from them came forth five falcons, who were
none other than the Creator of all things, Pariacaca, and his brothers,
the four winds. By their magic power they transformed themselves into men
and went about the world performing miracles, and in time became the gods
of that people.
[Footnote 1: Doctor Francisco de Avila, _Narrative of the Errors and False
Gods of the Indians of Huarochiri_ (1608). This interesting document has
been partly translated by Mr. C.B. Markham, and published in one of the
volumes of the Hackluyt Society's series.]
These striking similarities show with what singular uniformity the
religious sense developes itself in localities the furthest asunder.
Returning to Michabo, the duplicate nature thus assigned him as the
Light-God, and also the God of the Winds and the storms and rains they
bring, led to the production of two cycles of myths which present him in
these two different aspects. In the one he is, as the god of light, the
power that conquers the darkness, who brings warmth and sunlight to the
earth and knowledge to men. He was the patron of hunters, as these require
the light to guide them on their way, and must always direct their course
by the cardinal points.
The morning star, which at certain seasons heralds the dawn, was sacred to
him, and its name in Ojibway is _Wabanang_, from _Waban_, the east. The
rays of light are his servants and messengers. Seated at the extreme east,
"at the place where the earth is cut off," watching in his medicine lodge,
or passing his time fishing in the endless ocean which on every side
surrounds the land, Michabo sends forth these messengers, who, in the
myth, are called _Gijigouai_, which means "those who make the day," and
they light the world. He is never identified with the sun, nor was he
supposed to dwell in it, but he is distinctly the impersonation of
[Footnote 1: See H.R. Schoolcraft, _Indian Tribes_, Vol. v, pp. 418, 419.
_Relations des Jesuites_, 1634, p. 14, 1637, p. 46.]
In one form of the myth he is the grandson of the Moon, his father is the
West Wind, and his mother, a maiden who has been fecundated miraculously
by the passing breeze, dies at the moment of giving him birth. But he did
not need the fostering care of a parent, for he was born mighty of limb
and with all knowledge that it is possible to attain. Immediately he
attacked his father, and a long and desperate struggle took place. "It
began on the mountains. The West was forced to give ground. His son drove
him across rivers and over mountains and lakes, and at last, he came to
the brink of the world. 'Hold!' cried he, 'my son, you know my power, and
that it is impossible to kill me.'" The combat ceased, the West
acknowledging the Supremacy of his mighty son.
[Footnote 1: In the Ojibway dialect of the Algonkins, the word for day,
sky or heaven, is _gijig_. This same word as a verb means to be an adult,
to be ripe (of fruits), to be finished, complete. Rev. Frederick Baraga,
_A Dictionary of the Olchipwe Language_, Cincinnati, 1853. This seems to
correspond with the statement in the myth.]
[Footnote 2: H.E. Schoolcraft, _Algic Researches_, vol. i, pp. 135, et
It is scarcely possible to err in recognizing under this thin veil of
imagery a description of the daily struggle between light and darkness,
day and night. The maiden is the dawn from whose virgin womb rises the sun
in the fullness of his glory and might, but with his advent the dawn
itself disappears and dies. The battle lasts all day, beginning when the
earliest rays gild the mountain tops, and continues until the West is
driven to the edge of the world. As the evening precedes the morning, so
the West, by a figure of speech, may be said to fertilize the Dawn.
In another form of the story the West was typified as a flint stone, and
the twin brother of Michabo. The feud between them was bitter, and the
contest long and dreadful. The face of the land was seamed and torn by the
wrestling of the mighty combatants, and the Indians pointed out the huge
boulders on the prairies as the weapons hurled at each other by the
enraged brothers. At length Michabo mastered his fellow twin and broke him
into pieces. He scattered the fragments over the earth, and from them grew
A myth which, like this, introduces the flint stone as in some way
connected with the early creative forces of nature, recurs at other
localities on the American continent very remote from the home of the
Algonkins. In the calendar of the Aztecs the day and god Tecpatl, the
Flint-Stone, held a prominent position. According to their myths such a
stone fell from heaven at the beginning of things and broke into sixteen
hundred pieces, each of which became a god. The Hun-pic-tok, Eight
Thousand Flints, of the Mayas, and the Toh of the Kiches, point to the
[Footnote 1: Brasseur de Bourbourg, _Dissertation sur les Mythes de
l'Antiquite Americaine_, Sec.vii.]
Probably the association of ideas was not with the flint as a fire-stone,
though the fact that a piece of flint struck with a nodule of pyrites will
emit a spark was not unknown. But the flint was everywhere employed for
arrow and lance heads. The flashes of light, the lightning, anything that
darted swiftly and struck violently, was compared to the hurtling arrow or
the whizzing lance. Especially did this apply to the phenomenon of the
lightning. The belief that a stone is shot from the sky with each
thunderclap is shown in our word "thunderbolt," and even yet the vulgar in
many countries point out certain forms of stones as derived from this
source. As the refreshing rain which accompanies the thunder gust instills
new life into vegetation, and covers the ground parched by summer droughts
with leaves and grass, so the statement in the myth that the fragments of
the flint-stone grew into fruitful vines is an obvious figure of speech
which at first expressed the fertilizing effects of the summer showers.
In this myth Michabo, the Light-God, was represented to the native mind as
still fighting with the powers of Darkness, not now the darkness of night,
but that of the heavy and gloomy clouds which roll up the sky and blind
the eye of day. His weapons are the lightning and the thunderbolt, and the
victory he achieves is turned to the good of the world he has created.
This is still more clearly set forth in an Ojibway myth. It relates that
in early days there was a mighty serpent, king of all serpents, whose home
was in the Great Lakes. Increasing the waters by his magic powers, he
began to flood the land, and threatened its total submergence. Then
Michabo rose from his couch at the sun-rising, attacked the huge reptile
and slew it by a cast of his dart. He stripped it of its skin, and
clothing himself in this trophy of conquest, drove all the other serpents
to the south. As it is in the south that, in the country of the
Ojibways, the lightning is last seen in the autumn, and as the Algonkins,
both in their language and pictography, were accustomed to assimilate the
lightning in its zigzag course to the sinuous motion of the serpent,
the meteorological character of this myth is very manifest.
[Footnote 1: H.R. Schoolcraft, _Algic Researches_, Vol. i, p. 179, Vol.
ii, p. 117. The word _animikig_ in Ojibway means "it thunders and
lightnings;" in their myths this tribe says that the West Wind is created
by Animiki, the Thunder. (Ibid. _Indian Tribes_, Vol. v, p. 420.)]
[Footnote 2: When Father Buteux was among the Algonkins, in 1637, they
explained to him the lightning as "a great serpent which the Manito vomits
up." (_Relation de la Nouvelle France_, An. 1637, p. 53.) According to
John Tanner, the symbol for the lightning in Ojibway pictography was a
rattlesnake. (_Narrative_, p. 351.)]
Thus we see that Michabo, the hero-god of the Algonkins, was both the god
of light and day, of the winds and rains, and the creator, instructor and
teacher of mankind. The derivation of his name shows unmistakably that the
earliest form under which he was a mythological existence was as the
light-god. Later he became more familiar as god of the winds and storms,
the hero of the celestial warfare of the air-currents.
This is precisely the same change which we are enabled to trace in the
early transformations of Aryan religion. There, also, the older god of the
sky and light, Dyaus, once common to all members of the Indo-European
family, gave way to the more active deities, Indra, Zeus and Odin,
divinities of the storm and the wind, but which, after all, are merely
other aspects of the ancient deity, and occupied his place to the
religious sense. It is essential, for the comprehension of early
mythology, to understand this twofold character, and to appreciate how
naturally the one merges into and springs out of the other.
[Footnote 1: This transformation is well set forth in Mr. Charles Francis
Keary's _Outlines of Primitive Belief Among the Indo-European Races_
(London, 1882), chaps, iv, vii. He observes: "The wind is a far more
physical and less abstract conception than the sky or heaven; it is also a
more variable phenomenon; and by reason of both these recommendations the
wind-god superseded the older Dyaus. * * * Just as the chief god of
Greece, having descended to be a divinity of storm, was not content to
remain only that, but grew again to some likeness of the older Dyaus, so
Odhinn came to absorb almost all the qualities which belong of right to a
higher god. Yet he did this without putting off his proper nature. He was
the heaven as well as the wind; he was the All-father, embracing all the
earth and looking down upon mankind."]
In almost every known religion the _bird_ is taken as a symbol of the sky,
the clouds and the winds. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that by
the Algonkins birds were considered, especially singing birds, as
peculiarly sacred to Michabo. He was their father and protector. He
himself sent forth the east wind from his home at the sun-rising; but he
appointed an owl to create the north wind, which blows from the realms of
darkness and cold; while that which is wafted from the sunny south is sent
by the butterfly.
[Footnote 1: H.R. Schoolcraft, _Algic Researches_, Vol. i, p. 216. _Indian
Tribes_, Vol. v, p. 420.]
Michabo was thus at times the god of light, at others of the winds, and as
these are the rain-bringers, he was also at times spoken of as the god of
waters. He was said to have scooped out the basins of the lakes and to
have built the cataracts in the rivers, so that there should be fish
preserves and beaver dams.
[Footnote 1: "Michabou, le Dieu des Eaux," etc. Charlevoix, _Journal
Historique_, p. 281 (Paris, 1721).]
In his capacity as teacher and instructor, it was he who had pointed out
to the ancestors of the Indians the roots and plants which are fit for
food, and which are of value as medicine; he gave them fire, and
recommended them never to allow it to become wholly extinguished in their
villages; the sacred rites of what is called the _meday_ or ordinary
religious ceremonial were defined and taught by him; the maize was his
gift, and the pleasant art of smoking was his invention.
[Footnote 1: John Tanner, _Narrative of Captivity and Adventure_, p. 351.
Schoolcraft, _Indian Tribes_, Vol. v, p. 420, etc.]
A curious addition to the story was told the early Swedish settlers on the
river Delaware by the Algonkin tribe which inhabited its shores. These
related that their various arts of domestic life and the chase were taught
them long ago by a venerable and eloquent man who came to them from a
distance, and having instructed them in what was desirable for them to
know, he departed, not to another region or by the natural course of
death, but by ascending into the sky. They added that this ancient and
beneficent teacher _wore a long beard_. We might suspect that this last
trait was thought of after the bearded Europeans had been seen, did it not
occur so often in myths elsewhere on the continent, and in relics of art
finished long before the discovery, that another explanation must be found
for it. What this is I shall discuss when I come to speak of the more
Southern myths, whose heroes were often "white and bearded men from the
[Footnote 1: Thomas Campanius (Holm), _Description of the Province of New
Sweden_, book iii, ch. xi. Campanius does not give the name of the
hero-god, but there can be no doubt that it was the "Great Hare."]
Sec.2. _The Iroquois Myth of Ioskeha._
[Footnote 1: The sources from which I draw the elements of the Iroquois
hero-myth of Ioskeha are mainly the following: _Relations de la Nouvelle
France_, 1636, 1640, 1671, etc. Sagard, _Histoire du Canada_, pp. 451, 452
(Paris, 1636); David Cusick, _Ancient History of the Six Nations_, and
manuscript material kindly furnished me by Horatio Hale, Esq., who has
made a thorough study of the Iroquois history and dialects.]
The most ancient myth of the Iroquois represents this earth as covered
with water, in which dwelt aquatic animals and monsters of the deep. Far
above it were the heavens, peopled by supernatural beings. At a certain
time one of these, a woman, by name Ataensic, threw herself through a rift
in the sky and fell toward the earth. What led her to this act was
variously recorded. Some said that it was to recover her dog which had
fallen through while chasing a bear. Others related that those who dwelt
in the world above lived off the fruit of a certain tree; that the husband
of Ataensic, being sick, dreamed that to restore him this tree must be cut
down; and that when Ataensic dealt it a blow with her stone axe, the tree
suddenly sank through the floor of the sky, and she precipitated herself
However the event occurred, she fell from heaven down to the primeval
waters. There a turtle offered her his broad back as a resting-place
until, from a little mud which was brought her, either by a frog, a beaver
or some other animal, she, by magic power, formed dry land on which to
At the time she fell from the sky she was pregnant, and in due time was
delivered of a daughter, whose name, unfortunately, the legend does not
record. This daughter grew to womanhood and conceived without having seen
a man, for none was as yet created. The product of her womb was twins, and
even before birth one of them betrayed his restless and evil nature, by
refusing to be born in the usual manner, but insisting on breaking through
his parent's side (or armpit). He did so, but it cost his mother her life.
Her body was buried, and from it sprang the various vegetable productions
which the new earth required to fit it for the habitation of man. From her
head grew the pumpkin vine; from her breast, the maize; from her limbs,
the bean and other useful esculents.
Meanwhile the two brothers grew up. The one was named Ioskeha. He went
about the earth, which at that time was arid and waterless, and called
forth the springs and lakes, and formed the sparkling brooks and broad
rivers. But his brother, the troublesome Tawiscara, he whose obstinacy had
caused their mother's death, created an immense frog which swallowed all
the water and left the earth as dry as before. Ioskeha was informed of
this by the partridge, and immediately set out for his brother's country,
for they had divided the earth between them.
Soon he came to the gigantic frog, and piercing it in the side (or
armpit), the waters flowed out once more in their accustomed ways. Then it
was revealed to Ioskeha by his mother's spirit that Tawiscara intended to
slay him by treachery. Therefore, when the brothers met, as they soon did,
it was evident that a mortal combat was to begin.
Now, they were not men, but gods, whom it was impossible really to kill,
nor even could either be seemingly slain, except by one particular
substance, a secret which each had in his own keeping. As therefore a
contest with ordinary weapons would have been vain and unavailing, they
agreed to tell each other what to each was the fatal implement of war.
Ioskeha acknowledged that to him a branch of the wild rose (or, according
to another version, a bag filled with maize) was more dangerous than
anything else; and Tawiscara disclosed that the horn of a deer could alone
reach his vital part.
They laid off the lists, and Tawiscara, having the first chance, attacked
his brother violently with a branch of the wild rose, and beat him till he
lay as one dead; but quickly reviving, Ioskeha assaulted Tawiscara with
the antler of a deer, and dealing him a blow in the side, the blood flowed
from the wound in streams. The unlucky combatant fled from the field,
hastening toward the west, and as he ran the drops of his blood which fell
upon the earth turned into flint stones. Ioskeha did not spare him, but
hastening after, finally slew him. He did not, however, actually kill him,
for, as I have said, these were beings who could not die; and, in fact,
Tawiscara was merely driven from the earth and forced to reside in the far
west, where he became ruler of the spirits of the dead. These go there to
dwell when they leave the bodies behind them here.
Ioskeha, returning, peaceably devoted himself to peopling the land. He
opened a cave which existed in the earth and allowed to come forth from it
all the varieties of animals with which the woods and prairies are
peopled. In order that they might be more easily caught by men, he wounded
every one in the foot except the wolf, which dodged his blow; for that
reason this beast is one of the most difficult to catch. He then formed
men and gave them life, and instructed them in the art of making fire,
which he himself had learned from the great tortoise. Furthermore he
taught them how to raise maize, and it is, in fact, Ioskeha himself who
imparts fertility to the soil, and through his bounty and kindness the
grain returns a hundred fold.
Nor did they suppose that he was a distant, invisible, unapproachable god.
No, he was ever at hand with instruction and assistance. Was there to be a
failure in the harvest, he would be seen early in the season, thin with
anxiety about his people, holding in his hand a blighted ear of corn. Did
a hunter go out after game, he asked the aid of Ioskeha, who would put fat
animals in the way, were he so minded. At their village festivals he was
present and partook of the cheer.
Once, in 1640, when the smallpox was desolating the villages of the
Hurons, we are told by Father Lalemant that an Indian said there had
appeared to him a beautiful youth, of imposing stature, and addressed him
with these words: "Have no fear; I am the master of the earth, whom you
Hurons adore under the name _Ioskeha_. The French wrongly call me Jesus,
because they do not know me. It grieves me to see the pestilence that is
destroying my people, and I come to teach you its cause and its remedy.
Its cause is the presence of these strangers; and its remedy is to drive
out these black robes (the missionaries), to drink of a certain water
which I shall tell you of, and to hold a festival in my honor, which must
be kept up all night, until the dawn of day."
The home of Ioskeha is in the far East, at that part of the horizon where
the sun rises. There he has his cabin, and there he dwells with his
grandmother, the wise Ataensic. She is a woman of marvelous magical power,
and is capable of assuming any shape she pleases. In her hands is the fate
of all men's lives, and while Ioskeha looks after the things of life, it
is she who appoints the time of death, and concerns herself with all that
relates to the close of existence. Hence she was feared, not exactly as a
maleficent deity, but as one whose business is with what is most dreaded
It was said that on a certain occasion four bold young men determined to
journey to the sun-rising and visit the great Ioskeha. They reached his
cabin and found him there alone. He received them affably and they
conversed pleasantly, but at a certain moment he bade them hide themselves
for their life, as his grandmother was coming. They hastily concealed
themselves, and immediately Ataensic entered. Her magic insight had warned
her of the presence of guests, and she had assumed the form of a beautiful
girl, dressed in gay raiment, her neck and arms resplendent with collars
and bracelets of wampum. She inquired for the guests, but Ioskeha, anxious
to save them, dissembled, and replied that he knew not what she meant. She
went forth to search for them, when he called them forth from their hiding
place and bade them flee, and thus they escaped.
It was said of Ioskeha that he acted the part of husband to his
grandmother. In other words, the myth presents the germ of that conception
which the priests of ancient Egypt endeavored to express when they taught
that Osiris was "his own father and his own son," that he was the
"self-generating one," even that he was "the father of his own mother."
These are grossly materialistic expressions, but they are perfectly clear
to the student of mythology. They are meant to convey to the mind the
self-renewing power of life in nature, which is exemplified in the sowing
and the seeding, the winter and the summer, the dry and the rainy seasons,
and especially the sunset and sunrise. They are echoes in the soul of man
of the ceaseless rhythm in the operations of nature, and they become the
only guarantors of his hopes for immortal life.
[Footnote 1: Such epithets were common, in the Egyptian religion, to most
of the gods of fertility. Amun, called in some of the inscriptions "the
soul of Osiris," derives his name from the root _men_, to impregnate, to
beget. In the Karnak inscriptions he is also termed "the husband of his
mother." This, too, was the favorite appellation of Chem, who was a form
of Horos. See Dr. C.P. Tiele, _History of the Egyptian Religion_, pp. 124,
146. 149, 150, etc.]
Let us look at the names in the myth before us, for confirmation of this.
_Ioskeha_ is in the Oneida dialect of the Iroquois an impersonal verbal
form of the third person singular, and means literally, "it is about to
grow white," that is, to become light, to dawn. _Ataensic_ is from the
root _aouen_, water, and means literally, "she who is in the water."
Plainly expressed, the sense of the story is that the orb of light rises
daily out of the boundless waters which are supposed to surround the land,
preceded by the dawn, which fades away as soon as the sun has risen. Each
day the sun disappears in these waters, to rise again from them the
succeeding morning. As the approach of the sun causes the dawn, it was
merely a gross way of stating this to say that the solar god was the
father of his own mother, the husband of his grandmother.
[Footnote 1: I have analyzed these words in a note to another work, and
need not repeat the matter here, the less so, as I am not aware that the
etymology has been questioned. See _Myths of the New World_, 2d Ed., p.
The position of Ioskeha in mythology is also shown by the other name under
which he was, perhaps, even more familiar to most of the Iroquois. This is
_Tharonhiawakon_, which is also a verbal form of the third person, with
the dual sign, and literally means, "He holds (or holds up) the sky with
his two arms." In other words, he is nearly allied to the ancient Aryan
Dyaus, the Sky, the Heavens, especially the Sky in the daytime.
[Footnote 1: A careful analysis of this name is given by Father J.A. Cuoq,
probably the best living authority on the Iroquois, in his _Lexique de la
Langue Iroquoise_, p. 180 (Montreal, 1882). Here also the Iroquois
followed precisely the line of thought of the ancient Egyptians. Shu, in
the religion of Heliopolis, represented the cosmic light and warmth, the
quickening, creative principle. It is he who, as it is stated in the
inscriptions, "holds up the heavens," and he is depicted on the monuments
as a man with uplifted arms who supports the vault of heaven, because it
is the intermediate light that separates the earth from the sky. Shu was
also god of the winds; in a passage of the Book of the Dead, he is made to
say: "I am Shu, who drives the winds onward to the confines of heaven, to
the confines of the earth, even to the confines of space." Again, like
Ioskeha, Shu is said to have begotten himself in the womb of his mother,
Nu or Nun, who was, like Ataensic, the goddess of water, the heavenly
ocean, the primal sea. Tiele, _History of the Egyptian Religion_, pp.
The signification of the conflict with his twin brother is also clearly
seen in the two names which the latter likewise bears in the legends. One
of these is that which I have given, _Tawiscara_, which, there is little
doubt, is allied to the root, _tiokaras_, it grows dark. The other is
_Tehotennhiaron_, the root word of which is _kannhia_, the flint stone.
This name he received because, in his battle with his brother, the drops
of blood which fell from his wounds were changed into flints. Here the
flint had the same meaning which I have already pointed out in Algonkin
myth, and we find, therefore, an absolute identity of mythological
conception and symbolism between the two nations.
[Footnote 1: Cuoq, _Lexique de la Langue Iroquoise_, p. 180, who gives a
full analysis of the name.]
Could these myths have been historically identical? It is hard to
disbelieve it. Yet the nations were bitter enemies. Their languages are
totally unlike. These same similarities present themselves over such wide
areas and between nations so remote and of such different culture, that
the theory of a parallelism of development is after all the more credible
The impressions which natural occurrences make on minds of equal stages of
culture are very much alike. The same thoughts are evoked, and the same
expressions suggest themselves as appropriate to convey these thoughts in
spoken language. This is often exhibited in the identity of expression
between master-poets of the same generation, and between cotemporaneous
thinkers in all branches of knowledge. Still more likely is it to occur in
primitive and uncultivated conditions, where the most obvious forms of
expression are at once adopted, and the resources of the mind are
necessarily limited. This is a simple and reasonable explanation for the
remarkable sameness which prevails in the mental products of the lower
stages of civilization, and does away with the necessity of supposing a
historic derivation one from the other or both from a common stock.
THE HERO-GOD OF THE AZTEC TRIBES.
Sec.1. _The Two Antagonists._
THE CONTEST OF QUETZALCOATL AND TEZCATLIPOCA--QUETZALCOATL THE
LIGHT-GOD--DERIVATION OF HIS NAME--TITLES OF TEZCATLIPOCA--IDENTIFIED WITH
DARKNESS, NIGHT AND GLOOM.
Sec.2. _Quetzalcoatl the God._
MYTH OF THE FOUR BROTHERS--THE FOUR SUNS AND THE ELEMENTAL CONFLICT--NAMES
OF THE FOUR BROTHERS.
Sec.3. _Quetzalcoatl the Hero of Tula._
TULA THE CITY OF THE SUN--WHO WERE THE TOLTECS?--TLAPALLAN AND XALAC--THE
BIRTH OF THE HERO-GOD--HIS VIRGIN MOTHER, CHIMALMATL--HIS MIRACULOUS
CONCEPTION--AZTLAN, THE LAND OF SEVEN CAVES, AND COLHUACAN, THE BENDED
MOUNT--THE MAID XOCHITL AND THE ROSE GARDEN OF THE GODS--QUETZALCOATL AS
THE WHITE AND BEARDED STRANGER.
THE GLORY OF THE LORD OF TULA--THE SUBTLETY OF THE SORCERER,
TEZCATLIPOCA--THE MAGIC MIRROR AND THE MYSTIC DRAUGHT--THE MYTH
EXPLAINED--THE PROMISE OF REJUVENATION--THE TOVEYO AND THE MAIDEN--THE
JUGGLERIES OF TEZCATLIPOCA--DEPARTURE OF QUETZALCOATL FROM
TULA--QUETZALCOATL AT CHOLULA--HIS DEATH OR DEPARTURE--THE CELESTIAL GAME
OF BALL AND TIGER SKIN--QUETZALCOATL AS THE PLANET VENUS.
Sec.4. _Quetzalcoatl as Lord of the Winds._
THE LORD OF THE FOUR WINDS--HIS SYMBOLS THE WHEEL OF THE WINDS, THE
PENTAGON AND THE CROSS--CLOSE RELATION TO THE GODS OF RAIN AND
WATERS--INVENTOR OF THE CALENDAR--GOD OF FERTILITY AND
CONCEPTION--RECOMMENDS SEXUAL AUSTERITY--PHALLIC SYMBOLS--GOD OF
MERCHANTS--THE PATRON OF THIEVES--HIS PICTOGRAPHIC REPRESENTATIONS.
Sec.5. _The Return of Quetzalcoatl._
HIS EXPECTED RE-APPEARANCE--THE ANXIETY OF MONTEZUMA--HIS ADDRESS TO
CORTES--THE GENERAL EXPECTATION--EXPLANATION OF HIS PREDICTED RETURN.
I now turn from the wild hunting tribes who peopled the shores of the
Great Lakes and the fastnesses of the northern forests to that cultivated
race whose capital city was in the Valley of Mexico, and whose scattered
colonies were found on the shores of both oceans from the mouths of the
Rio Grande and the Gila, south, almost to the Isthmus of Panama. They are
familiarly known as Aztecs or Mexicans, and the language common to them
all was the _Nahuatl_, a word of their own, meaning "the pleasant
Their mythology has been preserved in greater fullness than that of any
other American people, and for this reason I am enabled to set forth in
ampler detail the elements of their hero-myth, which, indeed, may be taken
as the most perfect type of those I have collected in this volume.
Sec.1. _The Two Antagonists._
The culture hero of the Aztecs was Quetzalcoatl, and the leading drama,
the central myth, in all the extensive and intricate theology of the
Nahuatl speaking tribes was his long contest with Tezcatlipoca, "a
contest," observes an eminent Mexican antiquary, "which came to be the
main element in the Nahuatl religion and the cause of its modifications,
and which materially influenced the destinies of that race from its
earliest epochs to the time of its destruction."
[Footnote 1: Alfredo Chavero, _La Piedra del Sol_, in the _Anales del
Museo Nacional de Mexico_, Tom. II, p. 247.]
The explanations which have been offered of this struggle have varied with
the theories of the writers propounding them. It has been regarded as a
simple historical fact; as a figure of speech to represent the struggle
for supremacy between two races; as an astronomical statement referring to
the relative positions of the planet Venus and the Moon; as a conflict
between Christianity, introduced by Saint Thomas, and the native
heathenism; and as having other meanings not less unsatisfactory or
Placing it side by side with other American hero-myths, we shall see that
it presents essentially the same traits, and undoubtedly must be explained
in the same manner. All of them are the transparent stories of a simple
people, to express in intelligible terms the daily struggle that is ever
going on between Day and Night, between Light and Darkness, between Storm
Like all the heroes of light, Quetzalcoatl is identified with the East. He
is born there, and arrives from there, and hence Las Casas and others
speak of him as from Yucatan, or as landing on the shores of the Mexican
Gulf from some unknown land. His day of birth was that called Ce Acatl,
One Reed, and by this name he is often known. But this sign is that of the
East in Aztec symbolism. In a myth of the formation of the sun and
moon, presented by Sahagun, a voluntary victim springs into the
sacrificial fire that the gods have built. They know that he will rise as
the sun, but they do not know in what part of the horizon that will be.
Some look one way, some another, but Quetzalcoatl watches steadily the
East, and is the first to see and welcome the Orb of Light. He is fair in
complexion, with abundant hair and a full beard, bordering on the red,
as are all the dawn heroes, and like them he was an instructor in the
arts, and favored peace and mild laws.
[Footnote 1: Chavero, _Anales del Museo Nacional de Mexico_, Tom. II, p.
[Footnote 2: _Historia de las Cosas de Nueva Espana_, Lib. VII, cap. II.]
[Footnote 3: "La barba longa entre cana y roja; el cabello largo, muy
llano." Diego Duran, _Historia_, in Kingsborough, Vol. viii, p. 260.]
His name is symbolic, and is capable of several equally fair renderings.
The first part of it, _quetzalli_, means literally a large, handsome green
feather, such as were very highly prized by the natives. Hence it came to
mean, in an adjective sense, precious, beautiful, beloved, admirable. The
bird from which these feathers were obtained was the _quetzal-tototl_
(_tototl_, bird) and is called by ornithologists _Trogon splendens_.
The latter part of the name, _coatl_, has in Aztec three entirely
different meanings. It means a guest, also twins, and lastly, as a
syncopated form of _cohuatl_, a serpent. Metaphorically, _cohuatl_ meant
something mysterious, and hence a supernatural being, a god. Thus
Montezuma, when he built a temple in the city of Mexico dedicated to the
whole body of divinities, a regular Pantheon, named it _Coatecalli_, the
House of the Serpent.
[Footnote 1: "Coatecalli, que quiere decir el _templo de la culebra_, que
sin metafora quiere decir _templo de diversos dioses_." Duran, _Historia
de las Indias de Nueva Espana_, cap. LVIII.]
Through these various meanings a good defence can be made of several
different translations of the name, and probably it bore even to the
natives different meanings at different times. I am inclined to believe
that the original sense was that advocated by Becerra in the seventeenth
century, and adopted by Veitia in the eighteenth, both competent Aztec
scholars. They translate Quetzalcoatl as "the admirable twin," and
though their notion that this refers to Thomas Didymus, the Apostle, does
not meet my views, I believe they were right in their etymology. The
reference is to the duplicate nature of the Light-God as seen in the
setting and rising sun, the sun of to-day and yesterday, the same yet
different. This has its parallels in many other mythologies.
[Footnote 1: Becerra, _Felicidad de Mejico_, 1685, quoted in Veitia,
_Historia del Origen de las Gentes que poblaron la America Septentrional_,
[Footnote 2: In the Egyptian "Book of the Dead," Ra, the Sun-God, says, "I
am a soul and its twins," or, "My soul is becoming two twins." "This means
that the soul of the sun-god is one, but, now that it is born again, it
divides into two principal forms. Ra was worshipped at An, under his two
prominent manifestations, as Tum the primal god, or more definitely, god
of the sun at evening, and as Harmachis, god of the new sun, the sun at
dawn." Tiele, _History of the Egyptian Religion_, p. 80.]
The correctness of this supposition seems to be shown by a prevailing
superstition among the Aztecs about twins, and which strikingly
illustrates the uniformity of mythological conceptions throughout the
world. All readers are familiar with the twins Romulus and Remus in Roman
story, one of whom was fated to destroy their grandfather Amulius; with
Edipus and Telephos, whose father Laios, was warned that his death would
be by one of his children; with Theseus and Peirithoos, the former
destined to cause the suicide of his father Aigeus; and with many more
such myths. They can be traced, without room for doubt, back to simple
expressions of the fact that the morning and the evening of the one day
can only come when the previous day is past and gone; expressed
figuratively by the statement that any one day must destroy its
predecessor. This led to the stories of "the fatal children," which we
find so frequent in Aryan mythology.
[Footnote 1: Sir George W. Cox, _The Science of Comparative Mythology and
Folk Lore_, pp. 14, 83, 130, etc.]
The Aztecs were a coarse and bloody race, and carried out their
superstitions without remorse. Based, no doubt, on this mythical
expression of a natural occurrence, they had the belief that if twins were
allowed to live, one or the other of them would kill and eat his father or
mother; therefore, it was their custom when such were brought into the
world to destroy one of them.
[Footnote 1: Geronimo de Mendieta, _Historia Eclesiastica Indiana_. Lib.
II, cap. XIX.]
We shall see that, as in Algonkin story Michabo strove to slay his father,
the West Wind, so Quetzalcoatl was in constant warfare with his father,
Tezcatlipoca-Camaxtli, the Spirit of Darkness. The effect of this
oft-repeated myth on the minds of the superstitious natives was to lead
them to the brutal child murder I have mentioned.
It was, however, natural that the more ordinary meaning, "the feathered or
bird-serpent," should become popular, and in the picture writing some
combination of the serpent with feathers or other part of a bird was often
employed as the rebus of the name Quetzalcoatl.
He was also known by other names, as, like all the prominent gods in early
mythologies, he had various titles according to the special attribute or
function which was uppermost in the mind of the worshipper. One of these
was _Papachtic_, He of the Flowing Locks, a word which the Spaniards
shortened to Papa, and thought was akin to their title of the Pope. It is,
however, a pure Nahuatl word, and refers to the abundant hair with
which he was always credited, and which, like his ample beard, was, in
fact, the symbol of the sun's rays, the aureole or glory of light which
surrounded his face.
[Footnote 1: "_Papachtic_, guedejudo; _Papachtli_, guedeja o vedija de
capellos, o de otra cosa assi." Molina, _Vocabulario de la Lengua
Mexicana_. sub voce. Juan de Tobar, in Kingsborough, Vol. viii, p. 259,
His fair complexion was, as usual, significant of light. This association
of ideas was so familiar among the Mexicans that at the time of an eclipse
of the sun they sought out the whitest men and women they could find, and
sacrificed them, in order to pacify the sun.
[Footnote 1: Mendieta, _Historia Eclesiastica Indiana_, Lib. ii, cap.
His opponent, Tezcatlipoca, was the most sublime figure in the Aztec
Pantheon. He towered above all other gods, as did Jove in Olympus. He was
appealed to as the creator of heaven and earth, as present in every place,
as the sole ruler of the world, as invisible and omniscient.
The numerous titles by which he was addressed illustrate the veneration in
which he was held. His most common name in prayers was _Titlacauan_, We
are his Slaves. As believed to be eternally young, he was Telpochtli, the
Youth; as potent and unpersuadable, he was _Moyocoyatzin_, the Determined
Doer; as exacting in worship, _Monenegui_, He who Demands Prayers; as
the master of the race, _Teyocoyani_, Creator of Men, and _Teimatini_,
Disposer of Men. As he was jealous and terrible, the god who visited on
men plagues, and famines, and loathsome diseases, the dreadful deity who
incited wars and fomented discord, he was named _Yaotzin_, the Arch Enemy,
_Yaotl necoc_, the Enemy of both Sides, _Moquequeloa_, the Mocker,
_Nezaualpilli_, the Lord who Fasts, _Tlamatzincatl_, He who Enforces
Penitence; and as dark, invisible and inscrutable, he was _Yoalli
ehecatl_, the Night Wind.
[Footnote 1: _Moyocoyatzin_, is the third person singular of _yocoya_, to
do, to make, with the reverential termination _tzin_. Sahagun says this
title was given him because he could do what he pleased, on earth or in
heaven, and no one could prevent him. (Historia de Nueva Espana, Lib. III.
cap. II.) It seems to me that it would rather refer to his demiurgic,
[Footnote 2: All these titles are to be found in Sahagun, _Historia de
He was said to be formed of thin air and darkness; and when he was seen of
men it was as a shadow without substance. He alone of all the gods defied
the assaults of time, was ever young and strong, and grew not old with
years. Against such an enemy who could hope for victory?
[Footnote 1: The description of Clavigero is worth quoting: "TEZCATLIPOCA:
Questo era il maggior Dio, che in que paesi si adorava, dopo il Dio
invisible, o Supremo Essere. Era il Dio della Providenza, l' anima del
Mondo, il Creator del Cielo e della Terra, ed il Signor di tutle le cose.
Rappresentavanlo tuttora giovane per significare, che non s' invecchiava
mai, ne s' indeboliva cogli anni." _Storia Antica di Messico_, Lib. vi, p.
The name "Tezcatlipoca" is one of odd significance. It means The Smoking
Mirror. This strange metaphor has received various explanations. The
mirrors in use among the Aztecs were polished plates of obsidian, trimmed
to a circular form. There was a variety of this black stone called
_tezcapoctli_, smoky mirror stone, and from this his images were at times
made. This, however, seems too trivial an explanation.
[Footnote 1: Sahagun, _Historia_, Lib. ii, cap. xxxvii.]
Others have contended that Tezcatlipoca, as undoubtedly the spirit of
darkness and the night, refers, in its meaning, to the moon, which hangs
like a bright round mirror in the sky, though partly dulled by what the
natives thought a smoke.
[Footnote 1: _Anales del Museo Nacional_, Tom. ii, p. 257.]
I am inclined to believe, however, that the mirror referred to is that
first and most familiar of all, the surface of water: and that the smoke
is the mist which at night rises from lake and river, as actual smoke does
in the still air.
As presiding over the darkness and the night, dreams and the phantoms of
the gloom were supposed to be sent by Tezcatlipoca, and to him were sacred
those animals which prowl about at night, as the skunk and the coyote.
[Footnote 1: Sahagun, _Historia_. Lib. vi, caps. ix, xi, xii.]
Thus his names, his various attributes, his sacred animals and his myths
unite in identifying this deity as a primitive personification of the
Darkness, whether that of the storm or of the night.
[Footnote 1: Senor Alfredo Chavero believes Tezcatlipoca to have been
originally the moon, and there is little doubt at times this was one of
his symbols, as the ruler of the darkness. M. Girard de Rialle, on the
other hand, claims him as a solar deity. "Il est la personnification du
soleil sous son aspect corrupteur et destructeur, ennemi des hommes et de
la nature." _La Mythologie Comparee_, p. 334 (Paris, 1878). A closer study
of the original authorities would, I am sure, have led M. de Rialle to
change this opinion. He is singularly far from the conclusion reached by
M. Ternaux-Compans, who says: "Tezcatlipoca fut la personnification du bon
principe." _Essai sur la Theogonie Mexicaine_, p. 23 (Paris, 1840). Both
opinions are equally incomplete. Dr. Schultz-Sellack considers him the
"Wassergott," and assigns him to the North, in his essay, _Die
Amerikanischen Goetter der Vier Weltgegenden, Zeitschrift fuer Ethnologie_,
Bd. xi, 1879. This approaches more closely to his true character.]
This is further shown by the beliefs current as to his occasional
appearance on earth. This was always at night and in the gloom of the
forest. The hunter would hear a sound like the crash of falling trees,
which would be nothing else than the mighty breathings of the giant form
of the god on his nocturnal rambles. Were the hunter timorous he would die
outright on seeing the terrific presence of the god; but were he of
undaunted heart, and should rush upon him and seize him around the waist,
the god was helpless and would grant him anything he wished. "Ask what you
please," the captive deity would say, "and it is yours. Only fail not to
release me before the sun rises. For I must leave before it appears."
[Footnote 1: Torquemada, _Monarquia Indiana_, Lib. XIV, cap. XXII.]
Sec.2. _Quetzalcoatl the God._
In the ancient and purely mythical narrative, Quetzalcoatl is one of four
divine brothers, gods like himself, born in the uttermost or thirteenth
heaven to the infinite and uncreated deity, which, in its male
manifestations, was known as _Tonaca tecutli_, Lord of our Existence, and
_Tzin teotl_, God of the Beginning, and in its female expressions as
_Tonaca cihuatl_, Queen of our Existence, _Xochiquetzal_, Beautiful Rose,
_Citlallicue_, the Star-skirted or the Milky Way, _Citlalatonac_, the Star
that warms, or The Morning, and _Chicome coatl_, the Seven Serpents.
[Footnote 1: The chief authorities on the birth of the god Quetzalcoatl,
are Ramirez de Fuen-leal _Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas_,
Cap. i, printed in the _Anales del Museo Nacional_; the _Codex
Telleriano-Remensis_, and the _Codex Vaticanus_, both of which are in
Kingsborough's _Mexican Antiquities_.
The usual translation of _Tonaca tecutli_ is "God of our Subsistence,"
_to_, our, _naca_, flesh, _tecutli_, chief or lord. It really has a more
subtle meaning. _Naca_ is not applied to edible flesh--that is expressed
by the word _nonoac_--but is the flesh of our own bodies, our life,
existence. See _Anales de Cuauhtitlan_, p. 18, note.]
Of these four brothers, two were the black and the red Tezcatlipoca, and
the fourth was Huitzilopochtli, the Left handed, the deity adored beyond
all others in the city of Mexico. Tezcatlipoca--for the two of the name
blend rapidly into one as the myth progresses--was wise beyond compute; he
knew all thoughts and hearts, could see to all places, and was
distinguished for power and forethought.
At a certain time the four brothers gathered together and consulted
concerning the creation of things. The work was left to Quetzalcoatl and
Huitzilopochtli. First they made fire, then half a sun, the heavens, the
waters and a certain great fish therein, called Cipactli, and from its
flesh the solid earth. The first mortals were the man, Cipactonal, and the
woman, Oxomuco, and that the son born to them might have a wife, the
four gods made one for him out of a hair taken from the head of their
divine mother, Xochiquetzal.
[Footnote 1: The names Cipactli and Cipactonal have not been
satisfactorily analyzed. The derivation offered by Senor Chavero (_Anales
del Museo Nacional_, Tom. ii, p.116), is merely fanciful; _tonal_ is no
doubt from _tona_, to shine, to warn; and I think _cipactli_ is a softened
form with the personal ending from _chipauac_, something beautiful or
clear. Hence the meaning of the compound is The Beautiful Shining One.
Oxomuco, which Chavero derives from _xomitl_, foot, is perhaps the same as
_Xmukane_, the mother of the human race, according to the _Popol Vuh_, a
name which, I have elsewhere shown, appears to be from a Maya root,
meaning to conceal or bury in the ground. The hint is of the fertilizing
action of the warm light on the seed hidden in the soil. See _The Names of
the Gods in the Kiche Myths, Trans. of the Amer. Phil. Soc._ 1881.]
Now began the struggle between the two brothers, Tezcatlipoca and
Quetzalcoatl, which was destined to destroy time after time the world,
with all its inhabitants, and to plunge even the heavenly luminaries into
a common ruin.
The half sun created by Quetzalcoatl lighted the world but poorly, and the
four gods came together to consult about adding another half to it. Not
waiting for their decision, Tezcatlipoca transformed himself into a sun,
whereupon the other gods filled the world with great giants, who could
tear up trees with their hands. When an epoch of thirteen times fifty-two
years had passed, Quetzalcoatl seized a great stick, and with a blow of it
knocked Tezcatlipoca from the sky into the waters, and himself became sun.
The fallen god transformed himself into a tiger, and emerged from the
waves to attack and devour the giants with which his brothers had
enviously filled the world which he had been lighting from the sky. After
this, he passed to the nocturnal heavens, and became the constellation of
the Great Bear.
For an epoch the earth flourished under Quetzalcoatl as sun, but
Tezcatlipoca was merely biding his time, and the epoch ended, he appeared
as a tiger and gave Quetzalcoatl such a blow with his paw that it hurled
him from the skies. The overthrown god revenged himself by sweeping the
earth with so violent a tornado that it destroyed all the inhabitants but
a few, and these were changed into monkeys. His victorious brother then
placed in the heavens, as sun, Tlaloc, the god of darkness, water and
rains, but after half an epoch, Quetzalcoatl poured a flood of fire upon
the earth, drove Tlaloc from the sky, and placed in his stead, as sun, the
goddess Chalchiutlicue, the Emerald Skirted, wife of Tlaloc. In her time
the rains poured so upon the earth that all human beings were drowned or
changed into fishes, and at last the heavens themselves fell, and sun and
stars were alike quenched.
Then the two brothers whose strife had brought this ruin, united their
efforts and raised again the sky, resting it on two mighty trees, the Tree
of the Mirror (_tezcaquahuitl_) and the Beautiful Great Rose Tree
(_quetzalveixochitl_), on which the concave heavens have ever since
securely rested; though we know them better, perhaps, if we drop the
metaphor and call them the "mirroring sea" and the "flowery earth," on one
of which reposes the horizon, in whichever direction we may look.
Again the four brothers met together to provide a sun for the now darkened
earth. They decided to make one, indeed, but such a one as would eat the
hearts and drink the blood of victims, and there must be wars upon the
earth, that these victims could be obtained for the sacrifice. Then
Quetzalcoatl builded a great fire and took his son--his son born of his
own flesh, without the aid of woman--and cast him into the flames, whence
he rose into the sky as the sun which lights the world. When the Light-God
kindles the flames of the dawn in the orient sky, shortly the sun emerges
from below the horizon and ascends the heavens. Tlaloc, god of waters,
followed, and into the glowing ashes of the pyre threw his son, who rose
as the moon.
Tezcatlipoca had it now in mind to people the earth, and he, therefore,
smote a certain rock with a stick, and from it issued four hundred
barbarians (_chichimeca_). Certain five goddesses, however, whom he had
already created in the eighth heaven, descended and slew these four
hundred, all but three. These goddesses likewise died before the sun
appeared, but came into being again from the garments they had left
behind. So also did the four hundred Chichimecs, and these set about to
burn one of the five goddesses, by name Coatlicue, the Serpent Skirted,
because it was discovered that she was with child, though yet unmarried.
But, in fact, she was a spotless virgin, and had known no man. She had
placed some white plumes in her bosom, and through these the god
Huitzilopochtli entered her body to be born again. When, therefore, the
four hundred had gathered together to burn her, the god came forth fully
armed and slew them every one.
[Footnote 1: The name Chichimeca has been a puzzle. The derivation appears
to be from _chichi_, a dog, _mecatl_, a rope. According to general
tradition the Chichimecs were a barbarous people who inhabited Mexico
before the Aztecs came. Yet Sahagun says the Toltecs were the real
Chichimecs (Lib. x, cap. xxix). In the myth we are now considering, they
were plainly the stars.]
It is not hard to guess who are these four hundred youths slain before the
sun rises, destined to be restored to life and yet again destroyed. The
veil of metaphor is thin which thus conceals to our mind the picture of
the myriad stars quenched every morning by the growing light, but
returning every evening to their appointed places. And did any doubt
remain, it is removed by the direct statement in the echo of this
tradition preserved by the Kiches of Guatemala, wherein it is plainly said
that the four hundred youths who were put to death by Zipacna, and
restored to life by Hunhun Ahpu, "rose into the sky and became the stars
[Footnote 1: _Popol Vuh, Le Livre Sacre des Quiches_, p. 193.]
Indeed, these same ancient men whose explanations I have been following
added that the four hundred men whom Tezcatlipoca created continued yet to
live in the third heaven, and were its guards and watchmen. They were of
five colors, yellow, black, white, blue and red, which in the symbolism of
their tongue meant that they were distributed around the zenith and to
each of the four cardinal points.
[Footnote 1: See H. de Charencey, _Des Couleurs Considerees comme Symboles
des Points de l'Horizon chez les Peuples du Nouveau Monde_, in the _Actes
de la Societe Philologiques_, Tome vi. No. 3.]
Nor did these sages suppose that the struggle of the dark Tezcatlipoca to
master the Light-God had ceased; no, they knew he was biding his time,
with set purpose and a fixed certainty of success. They knew that in the
second heaven there were certain frightful women, without flesh or bones,
whose names were the Terrible, or the Thin Dart-Throwers, who were waiting
there until this world should end, when they would descend and eat up all
mankind. Asked concerning the time of this destruction, they replied