of the most striking things we encounter in our study of the Precolumbian
societies is the coincidence, of almost all of the Europeans who write
of the Conquista, and even of authors of later centuries, that the natives
either were of Jewish origin,1
or had already been Christianized in the past, or in some confused fashion
derived their knowledge and traditions from the Old World. The opinions
of these writers were doubtless based on the similarity of symbols, myths,
and cultural styles that, although they took different forms, were nevertheless
analogous to their own. This is indicated by Franciscans Fray Bernardino
de Sahagún and Motolinía, by Dominican Diego Durán,
and Jesuit Joseph de Acosta, as well as by Mendieta, Las Casas, Torquemada,
López de Gómara, Ramos Gavilán, Gregorio García,
and the vast majority of the chroniclers.
The former are observed in the civilization of Mexico's central valley, among the Indians of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, those of Bogota, those of Quito, and other groups belonging to the Incan Empire, such as the Harochiri, and even the Guarani of Paraguay and Brazil. They are known as well by the Zuni and other natives of the United States and Patagonia in Argentina. The latter emerge more clearly among the Náhuatl and Aztecs (the gods Quetzalcóatl and Huitzilopochtli are sons of virgins), and among the Quiché Indians of Guatemala (Ixbalanqué and Hunahpú, their heroes par excellence, are sons of the maiden Ixcuiq). Likewise, the Chibcha of Colombia revere a son of the sun, conceived of a virgin by the intermediary of the solar rays; and Viracocha, in Peru, impregnates a comely young woman without her being aware of it.4 We pass over certain myths like that of the flood, known throughout Precolumbian America, or that of the ancient existence of giants, coinciding with the biblical and Greco-Roman traditions.
But what really surprised the conquistadors, or those few among them with eyes to see, was nothing less than the symbol of the cross, present everywhere, which, due to circumstances, had to be hidden or not mentioned. Indeed, this representation is explicit, in its simplest form or in derivations, alone or joined in groups, throughout the American continent. In fact, the symbol of which we are speaking-which is certainly Prechristian-constitutes the cosmological schema of these cultures, and is always present in their manifestations, of whatever kind these latter may be. We refer to the four arms, or potential for horizontal expansion in the one plane, and to the center as locus of reception and synthesis of the vertical energy (above-below), which thus, by means of the cross, irradiates the totality of space.
It may be, however, that the friars' attention was caught more by the similarity of certain Mesoamerican rituals with the sacraments they dispensed. For example, they saw the practice of confession among the Aztecs and Mayas, marriage, baptism-of which the reticent Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatan, nevertheless asserts with pride: "There is no baptism in any part of the Indies except here in Yucatan [which was not true], and [it is] even [designated] with a word which means to be born anew or again"-and communion. With regard to communion, we must recall what Sahagún tells us in connection with the ceremony performed in honor of Huitzilopochtli, in which the people took communion by eating a piece of the god's statue, baked for this purpose with a sweet substance that is still popular in Mexico today under the name of alegría, "joy."5
The authentic consideration here is the fact that the ritual sacrifice of animals and their immediate ingestion on certain dates and in certain places of Precolumbian culture-as is verifiable, for that matter, in almost all cultures, including today's "primitive" communities-represented a sacred act of vital importance both to the individual and to the collectivity. The Christian Sacrament of the Eucharist, by way of bread and wine, symbolizes what other traditions exemplify by their correlatives: flesh, and especially blood, as a form of communion with the deity. We believe that it might be possible to understand, under an analogous perspective, the bloody human sacrifices performed in honor of, and in order to nourish, the sun as generator and preserver of life.6
At all events, these similarities between the civilizations of the New and Old Worlds are in no wise coincidental. To our ignorant astonishment, the basic symbols and myths of all cultures are manifestly and essentially the same.7 Our surprise is softened when we proceed to verify and establish this assertion, as well as when we reflect that what these symbols and myths actually represent-that is, the universal ideas they express-are the same everywhere, being derived from a common Knowledge and Tradition that we might call "nonhistorical," or better, "metahistorical." This is the reason why Symbology makes use of a comparison among the symbols of different civilizations as a method of shedding light on particular symbols. We shall use this system in this text vis-à-vis ancient American cultures as a single whole-insofar as we are able-and the multifaceted mosaic in which Precolumbian thought is expressed.
No one today seriously denies the sacred origin of every civilization, in the sense that this origin is mythical and metaphysical-as these traditions proclaim it-and that from it are derived their knowledge, arts, sciences, and industries, including the foundation of their city (when they are sedentary), and the name or identity of their inhabitants. In this sense, these manifestations would appear to respond unanimously to an archetypal idea from which flow cultural models and religious, economico-social, and political structures, behaviors, usages, and customs. This is why we can find-despite the varied forms in which these traditional cultures are expressed-such astonishing analogies among them: the expressions all refer to the same thing. This enables us, in our own turn, to create equally surprising relations and assimilations.
Historians of religions limit the culture they are studying, and locate it in space and time. The best of them, however, with Mircea Eliade at their head, carry their investigations to the very structure of the religious, expressing the atemporal origin of the latter. Symbology takes into consideration only secondarily the historical conditions in which the symbol is produced. On the contrary, it emphasizes nonhistorical-that is, essential and archetypal-values. But the main thing that distinguishes the symbologist from the historian of religions is the attitude with which each of them confronts knowledge. The symbologist does not take symbols, myths, or rites merely as static objects (with a history), but also as dynamic subjects, ever present, and manifesting themselves in the now. To put it another way, the symbologist takes symbols, myths, and rites as capable of performing a mediating function between what they express in the sensible order, and the invisible energy-the idea-that has generated them.
In this sense, symbols have no history-not only in that they have no temporal origin, but because the majority of them are common, and appear in very many traditions separated in time and space (as if they were consubstantial with man and with life). They actually occur in identical form, at times, even in their most remote significations (in the area of "witchcraft," for example), manifestations that are open to observation and understanding by anyone with a little patience and good faith. This leads to the recognition of a common origin, or to an acceptance of the idea of a unanimous historical tradition, which is surely valid if we consider certain enormous cycles that include not only dozens of cultures-the majority being ignored-but also profound geographical alterations in the earth, such as changes in the position of the poles, in correspondence with celestial phenomenon, and so on.8
This is the reason why the symbologist prefers to take the symbol as it is in itself (without neglecting its context): in its capacity not only as one object compared to another object, but also as the subject of an ever existing reality that has shaped it, which reality it expresses in direct fashion. What is of interest to Symbology is the idea that the symbol manifests and at the same time conceals. Thus, the symbologist aspires not only to a historical, or merely intellectual, understanding of symbol, but to its metaphysical knowledge, to its supra-intellectual apprehension (obtained by way of its cooperation), to the identification or incarnation of the essence of which the symbol or myth manifests. This is what was done by the members of the peoples who designed these symbols. Even now, they use symbols as cognitive supports or vehicles between different levels of a reality that they regard as one and sacred, the reality that is attested by these symbols and myths. To put it in another way: the symbologist does not concern himself, except secondarily, with symbols in a historical or simply "intellectual" perspective, but takes account of the identity of traditional symbols as they appear in various times and places-material that he has obtained from the history of religions and from comparative religions-seeking to understand, experience, or incarnate the concept, or the idea, that symbols represent and whose emissaries they are.9 This is especially valid in the study of and meditation upon human, that is, cultural, manifestations in their quality as constitutive of a symbolic whole, in which the trace of an invisible, eternal-archetypal-history is projected in the temporal forms of the visible.
At the same time, let us note that to have been born in a particular place in the New World, or the fact of having the same blood as the peoples who created the Precolumbian civilizations, or even the fact of speaking their language, is only a secondary advantage when it comes to understanding the original indigenous cosmogony.10 Greeks today know next to nothing of their mythic past and their ancient "beliefs." Even in Plato's era the majority were widely ignorant of them. In other cases, it may happen that a living tradition, the Hindu, for example, may be understood and lived-in what it is in itself-more profoundly and truly by someone not born into it than by a simple devotee caught fast in superstition and a confusion of images, as generally occurs with the majority of Hindus today. It is a different matter when those who compose a tradition know perfectly, and not only externally or superficially, the meaning of their symbols, myths, and rites-which must always be learned-and especially when it is quite evident to them what these things are, that is, when they understand their mediating and transcendental function, integrated into the framework of an original cosmogony, which they describe. Then the experience of this cosmogony produces a state of consciousness that can be approached thanks to an initiation into the knowledge evoked by the symbols, myths, and rites themselves.
Certainly one who has experienced these concepts and recognized the forms in which they manifest themselves, generating this culture or that one, will thereupon be able to understand the essence of that culture, its raison d'être-including its historical raison d'être-its idea of space, of time, of movement, of number, measure, and language, and accordingly, of its thought, from which flow all of its actions or creations, expressed through symbolical manifestations.
In order to assimilate reality, in order to be integrated into it, one must first have a description of it, better or worse, whatever that description might be.11 Everyone always proceeds in this fashion, even if he or she does not know this, or even denies it. A conception of the world in which the earth is a plane and at the same time the center of the universe is as valid as a tridimensional descriptive system in which the earth is a sphere that revolves about the sun, its axis. The same thing holds-and this is a theme directly connected with the preceding-for the plane graphic representation and its extraordinary power of synthesis and suggestion, by contrast with the oppositions of light/darkness and of perspective that have characterized the Western art of the last centuries, as well as for so-called plane geometry by comparison with solid geometry.
Outside of our mental field-unless it is willing to open itself to a greater breadth of vision-it is impossible to understand something completely foreign to us. This is what occurred with the Europeans in regard to the natives in the age of the Conquista, and it still constitutes the most important stumbling block in our efforts to approach this most rich and complex traditional store today. Everything indicates that the generality of religious, military, and functionaries who reached the American continent did not know the true signification, the intimate reality, of their own symbols, sacraments, and institutions. They seem to have known them at most in a fashion that was pious and moral (good manners and habits), or else legalistic, official, and administrative, and in no way metaphysical or esoteric, which is precisely tantamount to saying that they did not know them in their totality. This should not be surprising, since the involutionary panorama of the West has remained unaltered down to our very day, beginning to be obvious precisely in the Renaissance, due to cyclical causes.
It can be thought that something of the kind was occurring within the Precolumbian societies at the arrival of the Spaniards, especially among the bulk of the population, including the majority of their leaders and chiefs (although we should have to make certain distinctions among the various cultures that shaped the map of old America). There is a difference, however: the native sages and high priests seem to have known-and this can be verified through various documents-at least up until a very short time before, the secrets of life, cosmogony, and the deity, while the Christian religious (apart from certain honorable exceptions when it came to some humanistic or "classical" science) only feigned piety, in the best of cases, or good intentions-if indeed they were not mere functionaries of the Crown, or spies, or fanatics for the mass conversion of infidels. In any case they were never persons of knowledge in the authentic sense of the word.12 The "official" opinion of the Church when it comes to the Precolumbian traditions continues to be, as today for many of its prelates, that these traditions had been inspired by the devil, and had always been and still are the idolatrous product of the darkest ignorance, or of gullible, childish naiveté.
This fanaticism, akin to absolute contempt for the unknown-together with all of the arguments that point to and indicate the exercise of power-partially explains the reason for the almost total extinction of the wisdom that had created not only the great monuments and works of art that astound us today, but also, and fundamentally, its cosmogonic model, its astronomical and ritual calendars, its hieroglyphic, symbolical, and ideographical writing: that is, the structures of thought that caused life to flower within these cultures. The loss is most disheartening, and is all the more acute, when we manage to understand, through the fragments that have come down to us, the magnitude and quality of these traditional civilizations, comparable to the wisest and most refined of the entire world, but with certain forms and originalities so subtle and developed in certain cases, and so surprising in others, that they are not to be found elsewhere. Anyone who has been taken with the fascination of the atmosphere and beauty of the Precolumbian civilizations will clearly understand what we mean.
Let us give a simple example of this originality, one scarcely equalled in Greek mythology. The Mayan myths of creation are notoriously humorous,13 but their comedy is harsh and gross, even grotesque and bloody. Every conception and gestation-whether it be of the sun, of man, or maize-would seem to be the fruit of deceit, ridicule, difficulty, contradiction, punishment, or vengeance, expressed in a manner almost as cynical and sardonic as it is casual, and even shockingly crude. Sacrifice and ritual crime, and the constant contradiction of opposing elements, is portrayed in the antitheses of an astute dance in contrasting tempos, wild, preposterous, uninhibited, ever dominated by the discontinuous, the untimely, and the absurd, the absolutely paradoxical and unreal, where the only constant element is the transformation of beings and the mutation of forms that appear and disappear, die and are born, and share in one universal substance. This description of the origins (that is, the form adopted by any indigenous conception) has at its base something absolutely extraordinary, astonishing, out of proportion, sometimes monstrous and always sacred, which arouses, by way of immediate reaction-of attraction and revulsion-hilarity, and provokes bursts of laughter. This is a way to evoke the astonishing or divine event, and atemporal time, and to call to the numinous by way of exaltation, of measureless gladness-a state capable of producing a state analogous to that of mythic times-, jests, festivals, and ritual libations.14
We may have to exert a psychological effort each time we meet with examples like this one in our investigation of the Precolumbian world. The same necessity prevails in all universal studies bearing upon symbols, myths, and rites generally, since all of these, as manifestations of the sacred, are quite distinct from what the ordinary person strives for or imagines. Unless this labor is performed, and unless we are at least able to alter our perspective, change our viewpoint, with respect to an understanding of these expressions, they will appear coarse to us, and they will seem simple-minded ignorance, full of superstition, in function of patterns and programmings in which the deity, the sacred, is closely bound up with pomp, solemnity, the "sublime," exterior manners and hygiene-and even with an attitude regarded as "austerity," selfish and dry, uncreative-or with a devout and moralistic activity.
|1||It is striking that the Hebrew name, 'Adam, means "red," the racial color the original inhabitants of America attributed to themselves. This color is the same bestowed by others Traditions to the inhabitants of Atlantis.|
|2||As recently as the nineteenth century, presbyter D. Juarros tells us: "The said Toltecs were of the house of Israel, and the great prophet Moses had delivered them from the captivity in which Pharaoh had been holding them" (Compendio de la Historia del Reino de Guatemala [Guatemala City: Piedra Santa, 1981], tractate 4, chap. 1. Even the native sages, surely understanding the archetypal and symbolical elements expressed by the biblical "genealogies," began saying: "We are the grandchildren of grandfathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose names were thus. Besides, we are those of Israel (Adrián Recinos, Historia de los Xpantzay de Tecpán).|
|3||When we refer to the "Precolumbian tradition," we are generalizing, of course, since we are actually referring to numerous, relatively independent, cultures-whose languages were likewise more or less independent-distributed across the length and breadth of America. Nevertheless, these cultures maintained an obvious mutual relationship, which permits us to deal with them as with a whole. We shall return to this matter below.|
|4||For the Talamancas of Costa Rica, Sibú, a child-god, is born of a woman who has been impregnated by the wind.|
|5||They proceed in the same way on the occasion of other festivals, with effigies of Tezcatlipoca (according to Motolinía) and other deities.|
|6||We know of the human sacrifices in honor of Varuna, among a people of such unimpeachable piety as the Hindus.|
|7||Inca Garcilaso de la Vega warns us, when it comes to the "histories" of his forebears: "Those who might read them may compare them as they will to the [other] ancient [recitals], to which they will be found to present many similarities: Holy Scripture, as well as profane histories and fables of ancient heathendom" (Comentarios Reales, [part 1, chap. 5]). This commentary acquires a particular interest when we reflect that the chronicler, a mestizo, son of a Spanish hidalgo and a Peruvian princess, knew the native world directly in his childhood and adolescence, receiving a double education, and then taking up residence in Spain, and other places in Europe, as a "cultivated person" among those of his time.|
|8||The last of these great changes is, for Plato, the disappearance of Atlantis, which was situated precisely in the ocean that takes its name from the island-the ocean separating the Old World from the New-"beyond the pillars of Hercules," which would appear to be a common denominator of the majority of the historical traditions, however remote in time. Until the close of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth, the theory of an Atlantean origin of the Indians continued to be held. (See Marcos E. Becerra, Por la Ruta de la Atlántida.) In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this thesis was common, according to the bibliography of writings on the topic. (See, for example, Fray Diego García, Origen de los indios del Nuevo Mundo, [book 4, chap. 6]; Francisco Fernández de Salazar, Crónica de la Nueva España [book 1, chap. 2], where Agustín de Zárate is also cited, along with one of his works on the discovery and conquest of Peru; etc.). Comparisons were also made between the Precolumbian numina, symbols, and rites, and the Greco-Roman deities and myths and Abrahamic religions. The Renaissance, and even the post-Renaissance, were too still close to the traditional to ridicule or erase as fantasies things that had been accepted for centuries by the wisest and most cultivated persons of the era, such as the existence of Atlantis, or the correspondence and equivalence between different gods of various pantheons and cultures. Only with rationalism, evolutionism, and finally, positivism, were these ideas taken as antiquated and addressed with derision. Lest there be any confusion, the author declares from the outset that the viewpoint from which he takes his position is in no way affected by these three philosophical "isms," which emerge in one another successively, in natural and historical fashion, in mutual complementarity, and he regards them as the fomenters of the dizzying collapse of contemporary society. Rationalism establishes a complete, and illusory, division between the body and the soul, and isolates the mind from its context. On the premise of rationalism, all is dual: within and without. Evolution is pure science fiction: the species are fixed, and the idea of indefinite progress is an escapism like any other. Positivism renders the method of knowing more and more empirical, and "materializes" and solidifies more than ever the quests of thought, science, and art.|
|9||Perhaps it might be said-not without some presumption-that the work of the symbologist begins where that of the historian of religions leaves off.|
|10||A tradition-living or dead-is not the legacy of a country or group. As part of Primordial, Unanimous Tradition, it is the patrimony of man, of humanity. And this is intrinsic to its very character, its conceptual universality.|
|11||Even contemporary society, in its involution, claims to be able to order a series of empirical events in view of this end. However, its overweening pride has led it to erect a veritable Tower of Babel: a prison in which the inmates are subjected to terror, and systematically tortured.|
|12||The Americans were more "primitive" (as, happily, were the Orphic Greeks vis-à-vis the "classic" Greeks). The Spaniards had lost the spiritual and intellectual level that had been so fine-honed during the reign of Alfonso the Wise, who made of Toledo the Jerusalem of the West.|
|13||Also among various North American, Mesoamerican, and South American cultures.|
|14||In Master Gómez Palacio's report on La Provincia de Guatemala: las costumbres de los indios y otras cosas notables, we read: "If these folk have become intoxicated, and have drunk to excess, they have done so not so much out of vice, but because they believed that they thereby rendered a great service to God. Thus, the main persons to become intoxicated were the king and the principal lords. Others did not become intoxicated; but this was not because they were of lesser rank; it was because they had to govern the land and manage the business of the Kingdom, while the king was occupied with that religion, and intoxicating himself."|