Precolumbian traditions may be the cultures that have been the most studied,
and about which the most has been written, in the last century, particularly
in the area of the specialties (Anthropology, Archaeology, and so on);
but they are the least understood in their integrity, saving certain honorable
exceptions. Nevertheless, at the present time we have incomparably more
elements and pieces of information available about them, thanks to the
"universalization" of the world, a phenomenon produced by the explosion
of the communication sciences. These sciences are dual-equally capable
of offering correct and useful information, or of computerizing values
without rhyme or reason.
Rediscovering America five hundred years after Admiral
Columbus's voyage, then, means, in the light of today's means and values,
understanding the great message that the peoples who lived there bequeathed
to posterity, or to the human race. We refer to what they emphasized time
and again in their cultures (regarding the knowledge they possessed concerning
everything, which knowledge they derived from their experiences with unity,
the cosmogonic structures, and their theogony), symbols, and myths that
they handed down to the future by way of their own living of this Knowledge
on a daily ritual basis. These manifestations, expressed by the various
societies throughout the length and breadth of the American continent,
the usages and customs of these societies, their rites, the various socioeconomic
conformations and the different aspects, including ethnic, of the various
indigenous peoples, peoples different in space and time, is asserted even
in their languages, their "philosophies," their conception of the world
and of man. These manifestations are present as well in the numberless
samples we have ranging from the writing of their codices, their pictography,
ideograms, and other means of communication, to the creation of their calendars
and their particular adaptations of the nomadic, "primitive" life, manifested
in their poetry, sculpture, gold and silver work, weaving, basket work,
and so on and on, all of these things being symbolical.
All of these testimonials are available to all wishing to familiarize themselves with them. The only thing necessary for conducting an investigation of this nature is good will, interest, and patience-weapons with which one can win an understanding of the Precolumbian cultures. These can be understood in their formal or substantial character as manifestation, which is invariably rich, admirable, and suggestive, as well as in their reality: that is, in their authentic root, in their essence, which is to understand them in truth, and which comes to assimilating the values, the knowledge, that, as we have said, they have bequeathed to us. It also means understanding a traditional society, and likewise the archaic mentality, which is the origin of all of the great civilizations, among which the Precolumbian stands out, on a par with the greatest civilizations known in the West or the East.
On the other hand, the discovery of their cosmovision, which is sometimes analogous to and sometimes identical with that of other peoples, besides being a surprise-and like any qualitative verification, a pleasure-is the proof that there is such a thing as an archetypal cosmogony, a model of the universe, whose structure manifests what is available in what we call the Philosophia Perennis. The latter appears universally, despite the innumerable trappings it dons in different geographies and eras. Fray Juan de Torquemada, in his Monarquía Indiana, book 7, prologue, sagaciously observes:
We hasten to explain that the real analogies possessed by the different traditions among themselves, derived from their metaphysical, ontological, and cosmogonic conceptions, are not mere coincidences of form, coincidental similarities. On the contrary, they are equivalencies of a single, universal reality, intuited (revealed) by all human beings of all places and times. It is founded in the true nature of the human being and the cosmos. Hence the fact that these philosophies are authentically perennial, and reveal an identical thought in various ways, adjusting it to circumstances of mentality, time, and space. It is equally well known that guidelines exist permitting the identification of traditional thought-its cosmovision, its symbolism, its Imago Mundi, although these are not exclusively expressed in a logical or discursive manner. Man, as a complete being, includes various degrees of being-within, which escape rationalism, and in this sense one must keep account of the warranty provided by the symbols in this respect, as we shall set forth below. Miguel León Portilla, in his La Filosofía Náhuatl, tells us:
Ever since the era of the discovery, Europe has fostered a huge quantity of taboos regarding the new continent. All of these elements have of course generated, in the European mind, particular images of attraction and aversion for the unknown. Incertitude, suspicions, fear, and a powerful impulse to deny or reject anything that has not squared with its mental schemata, have been the order of the day. It has been on these schemata that the European mind has bestowed the value of truth, simply because they have been its own, and have been those of the cultural environment it has known. It would have been impossible, given the whole string of mental prejudices and religious taboos entertained by the discoverers, to regard the aborigines and their culture as something in harmony with a European conception of man and the world.
Then too, the role of the Europeans as conquistadors and missionaries (that is, their function as evangelizers and civilizers-in a word, as providential persons) rendered a priori impossible any intent of a positive appraisal of the defeated cultures. They were conditioned by their time, then, and by the geographical location of their birth. It must also be kept in account, for an impartial study of the Precolumbian Tradition, that the general cyclical period in which American peoples found themselves before the discovery was one of decadence, just as was the case with European culture itself.
The discoverers must not be blamed for their ignorance of the Perennial Philosophy-that is, of the real, authentic meaning of their own tradition. Christian esoterism had been forgotten, and the Inquisition was very active at this time. As we have said, the West itself is ignorant nowadays of the metaphysical and symbolical sense of its tradition.
Reactions to the discovery were very different, in Spain as on the rest of the continent, depending on the countries and on persons' viewpoints, interests, and degree of culture.5
These chroniclers report that one of the things most repugnant to the discoverers, as to themselves, were human sacrifices. These practices, today so difficult to understand, have nevertheless been common to all archaic peoples, and have been found in all societies. In no way, shape, or form is this an attempt to "justify" those peoples, who need no one's "justification." Rather it represents an attempt to approach the subject objectively, prescinding from current judgment and our inevitable sentimentalism. This is a property of all serious research. These sacrifices have been practiced by Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well. Among the last-named, they were officially prohibited by the Senate only in A.D. 97. Not only were these sacrifices known to the Celts, Germanics, and Precolumbians, but they are still practiced today among certain African tribes. Nearly always, these rites are followed by the ingestion of the flesh (the energy, the power) of the victim. Replacement of the human being by an animal or other species likewise occurs in rhythmical, historical fashion. We think it vain to attempt to judge an archaic society by current values, given the different mentality of such a society, which makes it other, and cleaves an abyss between what today's persons imagine themselves and the world to be, and the manner of living of a traditional human being.
One of the basic reasons for the difficulty of the study of native thought is doubtless the gradual loss of the cyclical sense of time. The West, on the basis of a solidification of its culture, the appearance of large cities (which involves an alienation from the natural periods), and an increasing individualization, has transformed cyclical time into a linear, chronological one. Archaic peoples founded their cosmogonies, and accordingly, their manner of being, understanding, and living, on a recurrent time, which, as a regenerative energy, is alive and ever active, along with a space in perpetual formation.
Indeed, the sun's daily and yearly cycle has been, for traditional peoples, a proof of the harmony and complexity of the machinery of the world, and of its constant industry. The world itself (the machine), draped in the trappings of nature, altering with the seasons, is but a symbol of the universal rhythm that precedes, constitutes, and follows any manifestation. The mystery of rhythm, expressed in cycles and periods, is the magic underlying every gesture, and the life of the cosmos is its natural symbol. The sun, then, is one of the most obvious expressions of that magic. In its periods it unmistakably marks off the regularity of time, which proceeds according to its decree.6 In the year, it orders the seasons and regulates climates and harvests, and on its governance depends the life of human beings. Thus the sun is "father," a word that denotes its almighty parenthood with respect to creation, as well as limiting its functions by humanizing them. Beyond this star is another energy, which has molded it, and has given it regulatory functions that channel the life of persons. The same thing occurs with the other stars, great and small, as well as with natural manifestations, even the very smallest of them, thereby constituting a concert of laws and a dance of symbols and analogies, in a perfectly cohesive whole, at whose center is found the human being. Knowledge of these relationships gives rise to the science of cycles and rhythms-another of the names that could be assigned to the Perennial Philosophy-as crystallized among the Mesoamericans in their complex calendar, that magical instrument of numerical relations and correspondences and artifact of wisdom that governs social and individual destinies.
For the American peoples, this solar periodicity was quadriform
(noonday sun, nocturnal sun and two settings; summer solstice, winter solstice
and two equinoxes). That quaternary structure was found to be present in
every manifestation (the four stages of the life of a being are, in the
human being, childhood, youth, maturity, age). Four were the limit points
of the horizon,7
and four the "colors" or basic differentiations among all things (recall
the four states of matter: fire, air, water, and earth in Greco-Roman civilization).
Every cycle, then, is divided into four parts, and this reality shapes
the simplest model of the universe, a product of the partition of the binary
itself, that is: its own potentiality (4=22).
This is the basic schema of the Precolumbian cosmovision. Alfredo López Austin declares:
From the four trees, the influences of the gods of the worlds above and below, the fire of fate, and time, shone upon the central point, transforming all existing things in conformity with the will of the prevailing numina of a given moment. In the center, contained in the perforated precious green stone, dwelt the ancient god, mother and father of the gods, lord of fire and of the alterations of nature in things.8
This quaternary division, present in everything, was also valid for the great cycles, concerning which complex and elaborate theories were held. Just so, this manner of seeing and dividing in terms of the quaternary can be applied to the life or development of any people: gatherers, nomads with an incipient agriculture, sedentary farmers, and the appearance of the cities-the birth, growth, decadence, and collapse of any social organism. Even their cultures have been the subject of this cycle, and of course failed to escape these universal laws discovered by themselves, or better, revealed to their sages and prophets. José Imbelloni tells us:
Let us repeat: A major cycle contains an indefinite number of minor ones, and the latter are subdivided in turn. A society can find itself before a barrier of history, and meet its end, its dissolution, in any period of its development, just as a child, a young person, a mature person, or an elderly person can encounter death at any moment. This is what occurred with the Precolumbian Tradition, which practically died out with the discovery. However, it can be reconstructed by means of the documents and other creations that bear witness to its past-by way of its symbols, which, being archetypal, are living still, and convey to us its way of seeing the Unanimous Tradition, which is the cosmogonic model in action, in the light of the Perennial and Universal philosophy.
|1||In general terms, the natives of today practice their devotions as an in-depth approach to the deity (cf. bhakti yoga), an approach directly influenced by Christianity, with numerous archaic vestiges.|
|2||In the same sense, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Chronicler Major of the Indies, writes, in his Historia General: "And thus indeed it appears to me that, when it comes to a great deal of what astounds us in observing the usages of these folk, and savage Indians, our eyes behold in them the same thing, or nearly, that we have seen or read of other nations of our Europe, or of other well-instructed parts of the world."|
|3||English version: Aztec Thought and Culture: a study of the ancient Nahuatl Mind, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1963.|
|4||See Antonello Gerbi: Nature in the New World: From Christopher Columbus to Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pa. 1985), and The dispute of the New World (idem, 1973).|
|5||But without a doubt it was a revolution in the geographical perspective-that is, in the spatial dimension-that (without it being evident to everyone that this was happening) modified the prevailing mental conceptions, with which the Europeans still identified. The modification of the European, Western mentality by way of geography, and especially cartography, altered its spatial conception (on a map, the places are fixed, places that until then had been but perfect discoveries or rediscoveries, in the dynamics of the journey), and limited it, fixing it. As we know, the geographical sciences appeared in this same era-much influenced, precisely, by the discovery of America.|
|6||Many indigenous peoples have experienced terror as a manifestation of the sacred-as a feeling, or energy, of the deity-and many aspects of their cultures can be explained on this criterion. In this sense, the star's appearance was not always counted on. And the fear associated with veneration, the sun's majesty, and the magic of ritual rhythm, produced (or favored) states that were often collective, of catharsis, or of communication with the invisible emanations. The latter were particularly in evidence when the daily cycle of the sun coincided with the annual, especially at the winter solstice, and even more when this convergence occurred in combination with the culmination of a major cycle, such as the fifty-two-year period (century) of Mesoamerica.|
|7||What may appear curious to one unfamiliar with our topic is that space and time coincide in this cosmic conception, just as they do in modern science since Einstein. Still, this conception is not peculiar to native America: it is the property to all traditional peoples. And far from being tedious for this reason, the study of their different cosmogonies is extraordinarily enriched by the differentiation of form investing each particular tradition.|
|8||Alfredo López Austin, Cuerpo humano e ideología (Mexico City: UNAM, 1984). There is an English version: The human body and ideology: concepts of the ancient Nahuas, Univ. of Utah Press, Salt Lake City 1988.|
|9||José Imbelloni, Religiosidad Indígena Americana (Buenos Aires: Castañeda, 1979), p. 87.|