we have already observed, a great effort is sometimes required in order
to situate oneself in the milieu of cultures foreign to those of modern
society, especially where their vision of the sacred is concerned, which
contrasts with todays viewpoints on the theme, as well as when addressing
other experiences, usages, and customs which we do not comprehend because
we do not understand the principles that have molded them. The same thing
occurs when we are confronted with the mentality of the men who participated
in these societies. Cultural guidelines that are foreign to our own, and
even our own in other historical periods, are almost a taboo for us, since
we fail to assimilate them and are accustomed to fall into the error of
transforming them into something different from what they actually are,
thereby adulterating them. At times these foreign guidelines present themselves
in disagreeable ways, and we think it better not to mention them-or still
worse, they are perceived as realities calling for "deodorizing," or distortion
in order to render them consumable. And yet, as we have said, the effort
of conceiving another time, of imagining a mental space different from
ours-that is, the in-depth investigation of what it is to be a human being-will
see itself recompensed by the knowledge of another way of seeing the world,
which will commune precisely with the original ideas that have given life
to this world. And these conceptions of the traditional and/or archaic
societies, paradoxical as it may seem, are precisely the conceptions that,
in the past, produced our own civilization, of which we likewise are ignorant.
It must also be said that, when other cultures are studied, the value-at
times dual-attributed to such and such a being or object frequently causes
surprise, either because its attributes do not correspond to our current
conception, or because the evaluation in question does not coincide with
those of other, known societies or with what we have been told about them.
What we wish to emphasize is how, for a primitive society, a system of symbolical correspondences is articulated that constitutes a code of presuppositions, an authentic language of synthetic images in action, which, because they are different from the ones we are accustomed to, we do not understand. We fail to realize that, despite rationalism, and the conditionings imposed by the rationalistic mentality, the mind still continues to function in this fashion.1
The sacred has been seen by societies and individuals under the color with which it has been presented to them, in conformity with the circumstances and times of its irruption into collective or individual existence. It has always been clothed in the dress of horror or of sweetness, of the completely empty or of fullness, of something beneficial or of castigation. It has taken the forms of war or peace. This is possible because the sacred embraces totality, and is manifested-as are all things-by a current of dual energy in which human beings share, and by which they perceive the metaphysical as something extraordinary by means of the polarity of the extremes.
Sacred intoxication, from a moralistic or conventional point of view-which we have altogether interiorized-would be something conceivable only for an alcoholic. And yet it has been habitual in the ceremonial practices of the American Indians of the North, Center, and South, who traditionally ingested fermented alcoholic drinks-pulque, balché, chicha, and so on-as part of their rites. Here they have done only what other peoples have done in the Old World, among them the Egyptians, the Nordics, the Greeks, and the Romans, not to mention the Christians, in whose symbolism, as we know, wine is equivalated to the blood of Jesus, while the others referred it to their gods. The ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs for ritual purposes (peyótl, certain mushrooms, ayahuasca, etc.) is closely akin to this practice, notwithstanding the fact that such a ritual custom seems to the laity-owing to ignorance-to be even more reprehensible than the former, to the point where it is judged downright impure, a diabolical degeneration. Today we know that the vast majority of traditional peoples have used these hallucinogenic substances in their ceremonies as a way of fostering knowledge, and establishing contact with the gods, and that these practices continue to be maintained today.2 We need not even mention the revulsion-and attraction-generated by the notion of sex as a spiritual experience, or any "excess" in narrow minds and conventional persons, ever subject as they are to the fears residing in an almost involuntary self-repression.
As for the "drugs" used by native initiates, which offend the decorum of the middle class, let us indicate the intention and meaning with which they are ingested, and with which these practices are carried out-that is, their function as mediating agents of knowledge, inasmuch as they facilitate access to metaphysical reality and through the latter to understanding of the physical as well, which is then understood as a material extension of the former. Furthermore, these rites and sacred substances lead to a catharsis, through a cleansing or purification-a death and subsequent resurrection-produced by the intensity of the ritual situation, which fosters a breach of level, in withdrawing subjects from their habitual time and space to situate them at the center of themselves. The new ubication is tantamount to another reading of reality, or to a different reality, which now appears as far more certain and actual, being now an interiorly verifiable truth, coexistent with the reflex image that is usually had concerning the Being and the World.
Obviously certain usages and customs are strange to us, even surprising. This is due in part-as we have already seen-to the fact that we have never been familiarized with them, and especially to the fact that our concepts do not coincide with those of the traditional cultures.3 But this difficulty also presents the route to an understanding of these cultures, since it is logical to think that, if we come to know the conceptions that have given rise to them, by forging links with their symbolical manifestations, we shall be able to understand the atmosphere and surroundings in which they developed-the feeling and thinking of a normal community of this type. Their religious feasts had little or nothing in common with what we today understand as such, nor are they found to have been in any way akin to the "sentimental" or "commemorative." In these ceremonies, the community participated whole and entire, to present, as a group, psychodramas of its cosmogony and theogony, as the chroniclers attest when they refer to their sacred dances and rituals, which did not exclude (far from it) pleasure and entertainment. Referring to the Aztecs, Fray Toribio de Motolinía tells us:
. . .
The first chants are sung on a low tone, slowly, as if the singers were dozing. The first chant is one appropriate to the feast, and the dance is always begun by those two masters, and then the whole chorus continues the chant and the dance as a group, and that entire multitude move their feet like very adroit dancers of Spain. And what is more, the whole body, head, arms, and hands move in such coordination, measure, and order, that each dancer is in perfect time with all of the others: in fact, what one does with the right foot, and then with the left, all do at the same time, and in the same rhythm. When one lowers the left arm and raises the right, all do the same, at the same time, in such wise that the drums, the singing, and the dancers all maintain the same rhythm. . . . Spain's fine dancers are in wonderment when they see this, and have great respect for these natives' dances, and the great accord and feeling that they maintain in them.4
Of the Mayas, Diego de Landa recounts: "There is another dance, in which eight hundred Indians, more or less, dance, with small banners, and warlike sounds and steps, and not one fails to keep rhythm. And they are sluggish in their dances, since, all the day through, they do not stop dancing, and are given to eat and drink while they are doing so."5 As we know, even today these dances continue to be practiced-although a coloration of "folklore" is now present-by great numbers of persons in Peru and Bolivia, especially at the time of the summer and winter solstices.
The same occurs with games. Games symbolize a cosmogony in movement: the players perform, and render present, the cosmic drama. Perhaps the most perfect example would be the Ball Game, a ceremonial competition typical of the great Mesoamerican civilizations-although we must not neglect other games and "sports" having a clear ritual and metaphysical intention. Let us cite the ritual game of the "flyers," still played in certain parts of Mexico and Guatemala. It consists in the aerial circumvallation of a ritual column, symbol of the axis and the center, by four protagonists. Juan de Torquemada describes it as follows.
Another interesting "entertainment" to consider is Patolli (whose translation is equivalent to "game," although patoll is also a type of speckled bean used in this game).7 It was played on a mat, on which a square crossed by two double diagonals had been painted. At the point of intersection was another square, divided into four equal parts, with each of the lines of the cross being divided into twelve cells. As we notice, the number of compartments will be fifty-two, which is the number of years in a cosmic cycle for the Mesoamericans. The number of throws and of players, as well as that of the "dice" with which the game is played, is related to astronomical and cyclical computations, as is illustrated in Fray Diego Durán's Historia de las Indias and other sources.
There is another "game," or rather, "sport," that we should like to mention. We refer to lacrosse, played by various native groups of North America and still surviving as folklore. This arduous and taxing game, played by adult males of the community, is also called the "little war," and clearly shows the relationship between these "sports" and martial activity, or the initiations involving the warriors and their battles.
Indeed, for the era of the "discovery" of America, for cyclical and astrological reasons corresponding to the time at which they happened to live, the native societies were warrior societies, as we have been saying, and the battle was a mystical symbol by way of which the energies of the cosmos became incarnate. Thus, when men participated, they were playing out their life and their Destiny. War was part of the daily rite, and those who devoted themselves to it, having received suitable training-and not just military training-gained for their labors the virtues and arts inherent in this office, fulfillment on the ordinary plane of manifestation, and-as consummation-access to other, invisible worlds. War is explicable only as a sacred activity, since by war evil is combated. A negation is negated, and accordingly, being is asserted. The generality of the battles among archaic peoples are waged against the spirits of evil incarnate in their adversaries, with whom the community may not compromise, under pain of the possible collapse of an order, of which they are the guardians.8
All of the American peoples of the era were warriors, without any need for some to represent the role of "good" and others of "bad." In the American context, war was an activity of the soul, a state occasioned by persons body to body, with the impetus and intensity adequate to this occupation, "in which was offered the divine liquor" (blood) and breath.9 For antiquity-and this was universal, among all peoples-the notion of an extermination or total annihilation of the adversary never found a place in the traditional mentality, which does not exclude the opposition, but complements it, and accordingly, has need of it. In order to approach a martial conception of this kind we should have to relate it to the image of a medieval "tourney," as conducted in the military orders and knightly initiations (Christian and Islamic), which also existed, as we know, in the New World. We need only recall the Knights of the Sun, the Mexican Eagle and Tiger Knights, the Andean Falcons and Pumas, and the various holy wars.10
The expression of this conception on the American continent would be clearly exemplified by the Tlachinolli, the "sacred wars" waged by the Aztecs and the Tlaxcaltecas for years. The objective was to provide victims for the solar sacrifices, or-equivalently-to die heroically in battle and thus feed the king star, thereby coming to form part of the sacred space of the gods (becoming an active part of the world ruled by the sun). We might also mention the festival or martial representation performed by the Aztecs on the last day of the month of panquetzaliztli on the ball field of Tenochtitlan. The presentation was dedicated to Painal, vicar of Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and it symbolized the battle of the cosmic energies, incarnate in planets and men alike. That same battle was represented by the players in the ball game, who were thereupon frequently sacrificed, to be united in blood with the soldiers who had died in combat.
Here we ought to recall that the two greatest civilizations flourishing in the age of the "discovery," the Aztec and the Incan, subsisted under an imperial regime characterized by "militarism." Their customs, and the very nature of their rites and symbols, had been adulterated: these had been in varying degrees uprooted from their principles, their symbolic reality now being clouded over by a linear, profane reading. This can be observed in the area of human sacrifice, whose notion and attitude is very much akin, in its principles, to those of war. Suffice it to say that, originally, the individual selected for sacrifice or torture, and manifesting generosity, valor, and glad readiness for it, was considered, like the warriors, an individual touched by fortune and glory, and one who would become, by his death, a part of the divine, to accompany the sun in its triumphal journey. Certain documents tell us that this conception was not maintained in its pristine quality in the militaristic empires. It had been degraded, which does not mean it was not integral in the original native cultures in which these empires had taken root, or that they did not remain actually alive, even in that era, among other peoples of the continent.11
We must not conclude these reflections, in which we have indicated certain conceptions of Antiquity that differ from our own (with the intention of entering into the Precolumbian world), without making mention of the difference between the current idea of education and teaching, and that of the traditional cultures, especially in the matter of the sapiential initiations. On this latter point, let us observe that the modern world is ignorant of anything having to do with initiation, if it does not reject it as something obsolete or fantasy-ridden. On the contrary, in a traditional culture all teaching is turned in this direction. Initiation into the mysteries is the same as the gaining of Knowledge, from which cosmogony is structured and the collective and individual life is articulated. This Knowledge has nothing in common with quantitative knowledge, an encyclopedic sum of information, empirical experimentation, or analytic multiplicity. Rather it bears on a synthesis, on the experience of essence and totality.
But above all, what definitively distinguishes the one kind of knowledge from the other consists in the fact that current society believes that knowledge progresses over the course of time, and that it is the acquisition of personal "theses," that is, of individualized and historical "inventions" or "discoveries"; while a traditional culture, on the contrary, considers knowledge eternal and revealed, current and living, and of nonhuman, that is, divine, origin.
|1||Fray Diego de Landa recounts that, in Yucatan, when an Indian's wife was unfaithful to him, it was said that she had "put his mirror in the crocodile's extra hair." Of course this figure is foreign to us, to the point of seeming improbable, as it fails to correspond with our images. The complexity of the relationships and suppositions possessed by a type of language as subtle as this is such that it is very unlikely that we should ever reach an exact and literal understanding of it-not even when we know that adultery was punished by death by stoning; or that men, not women, used mirrors; and so forth. Ancient peoples have always used this kind of idiom, based on associations and analogies, and even designed it graphically in their ideographic signs. This was the case with the Chinese and Egyptians, just as it was with the Precolumbians.|
|2||See R. Gordon Wasson, The Wondrous Mushroom: Micolatry in Mesoamerica (McGraw-Hill, N.Y. 1980); idem and A. Hofmann, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (New York, 1978).|
|3||For example, ritual suicide.|
|4||Memoriales, chap. 26.|
|5||Landa's Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, chap. 22.|
|6||Juan de Torquemada, Monarquía Indiana, book 10, chap. 38.|
|7||The indefatigable Humboldt compared this game with parchesi (or parchís), which is of Hindu origin. This game also bears a resemblance to the European "royal goose." Patolli was prohibited during the Conquista on grounds that it was dangerous, idolatrous, and pagan, and those discovered playing it had their hands burned, such was the importance attributed by Christian power to this game and cosmological amusement, of sacred origin, with which the natives identified.|
|8||"What astonishes me most about their wars and their cruelty is that the reason why they made war upon one another cannot be discovered: they have neither goods of their own nor sovereignty of empire or kingdom-nor do they know what greed is, that is, robbery or ambition to reign, which seems to me to be the cause of wars" (Americus Vespucius, Letter to Lorenzo de Medici).|
|9||Hunting is also a kind of war. The slaughtered animal, after the tracking and search, has been the hunter's object and "target." There is an identification between victim and victimizer, and even a ceremonial rapprochement, a oneness between the prey and the hunter, included in the very rite. Let us note as well that the objective of the native sacred wars is not so much to kill as to take captive. To catch a prisoner is to hunt him.|
|10||As a "curiosity," let us point out that the Romans called upon their gods before their battles, and these gods fought with the adversaries' numina.|
|11||"The folk of New Spain surpassed all of the other nations of the world in offering to their gods such costly and painful-and thus more precious, if horrendous-sacrifices" (Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Apologética Histórica).|